April 10 2012


ch9 img 008Each of the better-known disciples of Ma-tsu exemplified some particular aspect of Ch’an: Whereas Po-chang Huai-hai advanced Ch’an’s organizational and analytical side, Nan-ch’uan embodied the illogical, psychologically jolting approach to the teaching. But what about the Ch’an outside the monasteries? Did Ma-tsu’s influence extend to the lay community? Although little has been


preserved to help answer these questions, we do have the stories of two Ch’an poets who operated outside the monastic system: Layman P’ang (740?-811) and Han-shan (760?-840?). They were part of a movement called chu-shih, lay believers who were drawn to Buddhism but rejected the formal practices, preferring to remain outside the establishment and seek enlightenment on their own.1 However, P’ang studied under Ma-tsu himself, and Han-shan sometimes echoed the master’s teachings in his verse.

Layman P’ang

The man known to history as Layman P’ang was born in the mid-eighth century.2 He grew to manhood in the city of Heng-yang, where his Confucianist father served as a middle-level official. Although he was educated in all the classics, he became a practicing Buddhist early and never faltered in his devotion. Sometime after marrying he became so obsessed with the classic Chinese ideal of a spiritual-poetic hermitage that he actually had a thatched cottage built adjacent to his house. Here he spent time with his wife—and now a daughter and son—meditating, composing poetry, and engaging in characteristically Chinese musings. A story relates that he was sitting in his thatched cottage one day when he became exasperated with the difficulties of his path and declared, “How difficult it is! How difficult it is! My studies are like drying the fibers of ten thousand pounds of flax by hanging them in the sun.” His wife overheard this outburst and contradicted him, “Easy, easy, easy. It’s like touching your feet to the ground when you get out of bed. I have found the teaching right in the tops of flowering plants.” His daughter, Ling-chao, heard both outbursts and showed them the truth with her assertion, “My study is neither difficult nor easy. When I am hungry I eat. When I am tired I rest.”3

Then one day, thought to have been sometime between the years 785 and 790, P’ang decided to go the final step and sever his ties with the materialism that weighed him down. After donating his house for a temple, he loaded his remaining possessions into a boat—which he proceeded to maneuver into the middle of a river and sink.

We do not know if his wife and son welcomed this final freedom from material enslavement, but his daughter seems to have approved, for she helped him wend his now-penurious way through the world by assisting him in making and selling bamboo household articles. Free at last, P’ang traveled about from place


to place with no fixed abode, living, so the legends say, “like a leaf.” The image of P’ang and his daughter as itinerant peddlers, wandering from place to place, made a searing impression on the Chinese mind, and for centuries he has been admired in China—admired, but not necessarily emulated.

Whom did P’ang go to visit? He seems to have known personally every major Ch’an figure in China. The first master visited was the famous Shih-t’ou (700-790), sometime rival of Ma-tsu. (It will be recalled that the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, had among his disciples a master called Huai-jang (677-744), teacher of Ma-tsu and head of the lineage of now Japanese Rinzai. Another of the Sixth Patriarch’s legendary followers was Hsing-ssu [d. 740], whose pupil Shih-t’ou is connected to the line that became Japanese Soto. Ma-tsu and Shih-t’ou headed the two major movements of Southern Ch’an in the eighth century.)4 In 786 P’ang appeared at the retreat of Shih-t’ou on the mountain called Nan-yueh. He greeted Shih-t’ou by asking him one of the standard Ch’an questions, which Shih-t’ou answered by quietly placing a hand over P’ang’s mouth—causing the Layman’s first enlightenment experience. P’ang studied under Shih-t’ou—although probably in a nonmonastic capacity—for some time, until one day Shih-t’ou decided to test him.

“Tell me,” began Shih-t’ou, “how have you practiced Ch’an after coming here to this mountain?”

P’ang shot back in a characteristic manner, saying, “There is really nothing words can reveal about my daily life.”

Shih-t’ou continued, “It is just because I know words cannot that I ask you now.”

At this, P’ang was moved to offer a verse:

My daily activities are not unusual,
I’m just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing,
In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict.
[My] supernatural power and marvelous activity:
Drawing water and carrying firewood.(5)

The declaration that drawing water and carrying firewood were miraculous acts demonstrated P’ang’s understanding of “everyday-mindedness”—the teaching of no-teaching, the approach of no-approach.6 The story says that Shih-t’ou acknowledged the Layman’s enlightenment, and went on to


inquire whether P’ang wished to exchange his pauper’s robe of white for a monk’s raiment of black. P’ang reputedly answered him with an abrupt “I will do what I like.” Apparently concluding that he had absorbed all of Shih-t’ou’s teaching, P’ang arose and absented himself, heading for Kiangsi and the master Ma-tsu.

P’ang’s adventures with Ma-tsu are not particularly well recorded, given the two years he reportedly studied under the master. However, the account of their meeting has become a Ch’an standard. According to the story, P’ang asked Ma-tsu, “What kind of man is he who has no companion among all things?”

Ma-tsu answered, “After you swallow all the water in the West River in one gulp, I will tell you.” It is said that when P’ang heard this, he was suddenly aware of the essence of Ch’an.7 If this exchange seems puzzling, with its subtle wordplay that weaves in and out between realism and symbolism, what about another recorded exchange between the two:

One day the Layman addressed Ma-tsu, saying: “A man of unobscured original nature asks you please to look upward.”
Ma-tsu looked straight down.
The Layman said: “You alone play marvelously on the stringless ch’in [lute].”
Ma-tsu looked straight up.
The Layman bowed low. Ma-tsu returned to his quarters.
“Just now bungled it trying to be smart,” then said the Layman.8

The modern master Charles Luk speculates that P’ang’s request to Ma-tsu to look up at an enlightened man was intended to trap the old master: “In reply Ma-tsu looked down to reveal the functioning of the enlightened mind. P’ang then praised the master for playing so well on the stringless lute. Thereat Ma-tsu looked up to return functioning to the enlightened mind. . . . In Ch’an parlance, looking down is ‘function,’ which means the mind wandering outside to deliver living beings, and looking up is returning function to ‘substance’ (the mind) after the work of salvation has been done. P’ang’s act of prostrating is ‘function’ and Ma-tsu’s return to the abbot’s room means returning function to ‘substance’ to end the dialogue, for nothing further can be added to reveal substance and function.”9


Although the Layman declined monastic orders, he apparently could hold his own with the best of Ma-tsu’s followers, as well as with other Ch’an monks he encountered in his travels. Often monks sought him out merely to match wits. A typical exchange is reported with a follower of Shih-t’ou named P’u-chi, who once came to test P’ang:

One day P’u-chi visited the Layman.
“I recall that when I was in my mother’s womb I had a certain word,” said the Layman. “I’ll show it to you, but you mustn’t hold it as a principle.”
“You’re still separated from life,” said P’u-chi.
“I just said you mustn’t hold it as a principle,” rejoined the Layman.
“How can I not be awed by a word that astounds people?” said P’u-chi.
“Understanding such as yours is enough to astonish people,” replied the Layman.
“The very statement ‘don’t hold it as a principle’ has become a principle,” said P’u-chi.
“You’re separated not only by one or two lives,” said the Layman.
“It’s all right for you to reprove a rice-gruel [-eating] monk [like me],” returned P’u-chi.
The Layman snapped his fingers three times.10

The precise meaning of this exchange will not be tackled here, but P’ang apparently came off on top. Now and then, however, P’ang seems to have been equaled or bested. There is a story of an exchange he had with one of the monks at Ma-tsu’s monastery, named Shih-lin.

One day Shih-lin said to the Layman: “I have a question I’d like to ask. Don’t spare your words.”
“Please go on,” said the Layman.
“How you do spare words!” exclaimed Shih-lin.
“Unwittingly by this discussion we’ve fallen into a snare [of words],” said the Layman.
Shih-lin covered his ears.
“You adept, you adept!” cried the Layman.11


Another time P’ang is reminiscent of Chao-chou in demonstrating that it is possible to hold one’s own without the use of words.

The Layman was once lying on his couch reading a sutra. A monk saw him and said: “Layman! You must maintain dignity when reading a sutra.”
The Layman raised up one leg.
The monk had nothing to say.12

Layman P’ang studied under Ma-tsu for two years, but he finally decided to resume his life as a wandering student of Ch’an. He left Ma-tsu declaring the family his source of strength, or so it would seem from his parting verse presented to the master.

I’ve a boy who has no bride,
I’ve a girl who has no groom;
Forming a happy family circle,
We speak about Birthless.13

And off he went to travel, a completely enlightened man after his stay in Kiangsi. He turned increasingly to poetry during these years of wandering across the central part of China, composing some of his most sensitive verse. One poem in particular seems to capture the carefree spirit of these years of wanderings:

The wise man, perceiving wealth and lust,
Knows them to be empty illusion;
Food and clothes sustain body and life—
I advise you to learn being as is.
When it’s time, I move my hermitage and go,
And there’s nothing to be left behind.14

One of Layman P’ang’s most enduring companions was the monk Tan-hsia T’ien-jan, known for his irreverence. The following is typical of the exchanges recorded between the two:

When the Layman was walking with Tan-hsia one day he saw a deep pool of clear water. Pointing to it with his hand, he said: “Being as it is we can’t differentiate it.”
“Of course we can’t,” replied Tan-hsia.
The Layman scooped up and threw two handfuls of water on Tan-hsia


“Don’t do that, don’t do that!” cried Tan-hsia.
“I have to, I have to!” exclaimed the Layman.
Whereupon Tan-hsia scooped up and threw three handfuls of water on the Layman, saying: “What can you do now?”
“Nothing else,” replied the Layman.
“One seldom wins by a fluke,” said Tan-hsia.
“Who lost by a fluke?” returned the Layman.15

To attempt to explicate this exchange would be to ride the wind. They are in a completely different reality from that in which mere books are written and read.

What occupied Madam P’ang during the Layman’s wanderings is not known. However, she seems well on the way to enlightenment herself. A story says that one day she went to a Buddhist temple to make an offering of food. The priest asked her the purpose of the offering so that he could post the customary notice identifying the name of a donor and the date and purpose of the gift. This was called “transferring merit,” since the knowledge of her good deed would be “transferred” from herself to others. It is reported that Mrs. P’ang took her comb, stuck it in the back of her hair, and announced to the stunned priest, “Transference of merit is accomplished.”16 She seemed a part of P’ang’s enlightenment, even if not a companion in his travels.

Eventually P’ang and his daughter, Ling-chao, ended up back in the north, near Hsiang-yang, the city of his birth, which he had left when a very small child. But instead of moving into the town, they lived in a cave about twenty miles to the south. And to this cave often journeyed a distinguished visitor—Prefect Yu Ti of Hsiang province, an important official who had learned of P’ang’s verse and his reputation for Ch’an teaching. Originally a vicious and arrogant dictator who delighted in persecuting Buddhists, he had been converted by a Ch’an monk and had become a strong supporter of the faith. In fact, it is Yu Ti whom we must thank for our knowledge of P’ang, for it was he who collected the poetry and stories of the Layman after his death.

P’ang lived in his cave with Ling-chao for two years, and then he suddenly declared that it was time to die. In a dramatic gesture, he assumed a meditating posture and asked Ling-chao to go outside and tell him when the sun reached high noon, at which time he would pass on. She went out, but quickly returned to announce that it was already noon but that there was an eclipse. P’ang jumped up and ran out to see this event, but while


he was gone Ling-chao seated herself in his place, folded her hands, and died herself. P’ang returned from her diversionary announcement, saw what had happened, and declared, “Her way was always swift. Now she has gone ahead of me.” In respect he postponed his own death for a week.17

Hearing of this episode, Prefect Yu Ti rushed to the scene. The Layman addressed him with, “I pray you to hold all that is thought to be real as empty, and never take that which is empty as being real. Farewell. The world is merely a shadow, an echo.”18 He then laid his head on the prefect’s knee and died. He left a request that his body be cremated and his ashes scattered across the waters of nearby lakes and rivers.

When P’ang’s wife heard of the death of her husband and daughter, she said, “That stupid girl and ignorant old man have gone away without telling me. How unbearable.”19 She then relayed the news to her son, who was in the fields hoeing. He too subsequently died miraculously, while still standing up. For her own part, Madam P’ang journeyed about the countryside bidding her friends farewell, and then secluded herself, where it was never known. And with her passing ends the saga of Layman P’ang. This real-life individual was honored as China’s answer to the mythical Indian businessman Vimalakirti, who combined enlightenment with the life of the market.

Han Shan

An even more elusive figure is the hermit Han-shan, whose name means “Cold Mountain,” the site where he supposedly resided. He is an almost totally lengendary character, for we actually know nothing for sure about when he lived (the current best guess is late eighth to early ninth century). Almost everything known about him has been gleaned from his poems and from a presumably contemporaneous preface to these poems composed by a mysterious hand untraceable to any historical Chinese individual. His was some of the most confessional, yet joyous, verse penned in T’ang China, and he has been claimed by the Ch’anists as one of theirs—although he might just as easily have been a Taoist conversant in Buddhist jargon. Han-shan embodied the archetypal hero of the Chinese imagination: a member of the rural gentry who gave up his staid family life and some sort of scholarly career to become a wandering poet. As he describes his own early life in the years before his wanderings:


From my father and mother I inherited land enough
And need not envy others’ orchards and fields
Creak, creak goes the sound of my wife’s loom;
Back and forth my children prattle at their play

The mountain fruits child in hand I pluck;
My paddy field along with my wife I hoe.
And what have I got inside my house?
Nothing at all but one stand of books.20

So we have a gentleman scholar, comfortably well off, with wife and children and an idyllic life undisturbed by the incursions of the world. It is all too perfect by half, and sure enough sometime before his thirtieth year his life was disrupted by an (undescribed) event so catastrophic that his wife and family turned him out:

I took along books when I hoed the fields,
In my youth, when I lived with my older brother.
Then people began to talk;
Even my wife turned against me.
Now I’ve broken my ties with the world of red dust;
I spend my time wandering and read all I want.
Who will lend a dipper of water
To save a fish in a carriage rut.21

Just when this sad event took place we do not know. However, by the time Han-shan was thirty he found himself on Cold Mountain, part of the T’ien-tai mountain range and near the town of T’ang-hsing.

Thirty years ago I was born into the world.
A thousand, ten thousand miles I’ve roamed,
By rivers where the green grass lies thick,
Beyond the border where the red sands fly.
I brewed potions in a vain search for life everlasting.
I read books, I sang songs of history,
And today I’ve come home to Cold Mountain
To pillow my head on the stream and wash my ears.22


He described his life in the mountains in a number of verses that often seem more Taoist than Buddhist. One of the most lyrical follows:

Ever since the time when I hid in the Cold Mountain
I have kept alive by eating the mountain fruits.
From day to day what is there to trouble me?
This my life follows a destined course.
The days and months flow ceaseless as a stream;
Our time is brief as the flash struck on a stone.
If Heaven and Earth shift, then let them shift;
I shall still be sitting happy among the rocks.23

He was a contradictory individual, one minute solemn in his search for Mind, and the next minute a buoyant bon vivant, writing verses that seem almost a T’ang version of our own carpe diem:

Of course there are some people who are careful of money,
But not I among them.
Because I dance too much, my garment of thin cloth is worn.
My bottle is empty, for I spurt out the wine when we sing.
Eat a full meal.
Don’t tire your feet.
The day when weeds are sprouting through your skull,
You will regret what you have been.24

The life he describes for himself is one immersed in poetry. He is the compleat poet, whose only concern is writing (not publishing) verse.

Once at Cold Mountain, troubles cease—
No more tangled, hung-up mind,
I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff,
Taking whatever comes, like a drifting boat.25

But if his poems were written on a rock cliff, how then were they preserved? Thereon hangs a tale, or more likely a legend. At some unknown time, Han-shan’s verses (some three hundred) were collected and supplied with a “preface.”26 The person who takes credit for saving Han-shan from a country poet’s oblivion identifies himself as Lu-ch’iu Yin, a high official. As it happens, the T’ang Chinese were very fussy about keeping records on such


things as high officials, and a Lu-ch’iu Yin is not remembered among their ranks. Consequently, some have speculated that the author of the preface was in fact a Buddhist priest who wished to remain anonymous. At any rate, according to the story, our official first heard of Han-shan upon becoming ill just before a planned trip to a new prefecture and, after failing to be helped by a doctor, was cured by a wandering priest, who then told him that in the prefecture of his destination he would need further protection from bodily ills. Lu-ch’iu Yin asked him for the name of a master, and the priest told him to be on the lookout for two eccentric-appearing kitchen servants at the Kuo-ch’ing monastery dining hall, named Han-shan and Shih-te.

When he arrived at his new post, he immediately sought out this monastery and was amazed to learn the story was true. People around the temple said, “Yes, there is a Han-shan. He lives alone in the hills at a place called Cold Mountain, but he often comes down to the temple to visit his friend, Shih-te. The cook, Shih-te, it turned out, saved leftovers for his friend Han-shan, who would come and take them away in a bamboo tube, merrily laughing and joking along the length of the temple veranda as he carted away his booty. Once the monks caught him and exposed his system, but he only laughed all the more. His appearance was that of a starving beggar, but his wisdom was that of a man of enlightenment.

Lu-ch’iu Yin anxiously pressed on to the kitchen, where sure enough he found Han-shan and Shih-te, tending the stoves and warming themselves over the fire. When he bowed low to them, they broke into gales of laughter and shouted “HO” back at him. The other monks were scandalized and wondered aloud why a distinguished official would bow to a pair of ne’er-do-wells. But before he could explain, the pair clasped hands and bolted out of the temple. (The giggling Han-shan and Shih-te became a staple of Zen art for a millennium thereafter.) Determined to retrieve them, he arranged for the monastery to provide them permanent accommodations and left a package of clothes and incense for them. When they failed to reappear, he had a bearer carry his gifts and accompany him up into the mountains. Finally they glimpsed Han-shan, who yelled, “Thief! Thief!” at them and retreated to the opening of a cave. He then bade them farewell with, “Each of you men should strive to your utmost!” Whereupon he disappeared into the cave, which itself then closed upon him, leaving no trace. The preface says Han-shan was never seen


again. In homage the disappointed Lu-ch’iu Yin had his poems collected from where they had been composed—on scraps of bamboo, wood, stones, cliffs, and on the walls of houses. Thus there came to be the collected oeuvre of Han-shan.

Han-shan’s poems support at least part of this somewhat fanciful story. He does seem to have been Buddhist in outlook, and as one of his translators, Burton Watson, has declared, “. . . to judge from his poetry, Han-shan was a follower of the Ch’an sect, which placed great emphasis on individual effort and was less wary of emotionalism than earlier Buddhism had been. . . . Though he writes at times in a mood of serenity, at other times he appears despondent, angry, arrogant, or wildly elated. . . ,”27

As did Layman P’ang, Han-shan seems to have believed that the Way is found in everyday-mindedness, a point of view most forcefully expounded by Ma-tsu. As Han-shan declares in one of his poems:

As for me, I delight in the everyday Way,
Among mist-wrapped vines and rocky caves.
Here in the wilderness I am completely free,
With my friends, the white clouds, idling forever.
There are roads, but they do not reach the world;
Since I am mindless, who can rouse my thoughts?
On a bed of stone I sit, alone in the night,
While the round moon climbs up Cold Mountain.28

Many of his verses reinforce the belief that he was indeed a follower of Southern Ch’an. For example, he seemed to believe that the mind itself is the Buddha that all seek.

Talking about food won’t make you full,
Babbling of clothes won’t keep out the cold.
A bowl of rice is what fills the belly;
It takes a suit of clothing to make you warm.
And yet, without stopping to consider this,
You complain that Buddha is hard to find.
Turn your mind within! There he is!
Why look for him abroad?29

Interestingly enough, for all his rather traditional Ch’an sentiments and admonitions, he was much more in touch with


human concerns than were most followers of Ch’an. For one thing, he lived alone in the mountains, an isolated ascetic cut off from human contact, and the resulting loneliness was something those caught up in the riotous give-and-take of a Ch’an monastery never knew. He gives voice to this loneliness in a touching poem.

I look far off at T’ien-t’ai’s summit,
Alone and high above the crowding peaks.
Pines and bamboos sing in the wind that sways them
Sea tides wash beneath the shining moon.
I gaze at the mountain’s green borders below
And discuss philosophy with the white clouds.
In the wilderness, mountains and seas are all right,
But I wish I had a companion in my search for the Way.30

The admission of loneliness and near-despair in many of his verses has always been a troublesome point for Zen commentators. The enlightened man is supposed to be immune to the misgivings of the heart, focused as he is on oneness and nondistinction. But Han-shan worried a good bit about old age, and he also missed his family, as he admits, albeit through the medium of a dream:

Last night in a dream I returned to my old home
And saw my wife weaving at her loom.
She held her shuttle poised, as though lost in thought,
As though she had no strength to lift it further.
I called. She turned her head to look,
But her eyes were blank—she didn’t know me.
So many years we’ve been parted
The hair at my temples has lost its old color.31

But perhaps it is this non-Ch’an quality, this mortal touch, that elevates Han-shan to the rank of a great lyrical poet. He actually manages to be both a plausible Buddhist and a vulnerable human being. Few other poets in Chinese letters managed to combine genuine Buddhism with such memorable verse. As Burton Watson has observed, “In the works of most first-rate Chinese poets, Buddhism figures very slightly, usually as little more than a vague mood of resignation or a picturesque embellishment in the landscape—the mountain temple falling into melancholy ruin, the old monk one visits on an outing in the hills. Han-shan, however,


is a striking exception to this rule. The collection of poetry attributed to him . . . is permeated with deep and compelling religious feeling. For this reason he holds a place of special importance in Chinese literature. He proved that it was possible to write great poetry on Buddhist, as well as Confucian and Taoist, themes; that the cold abstractions of Mahayana philosophy could be transformed into personal and impassioned literature. . . . The language of his poems is simple, often colloquial or even slangy . . . [but] many of his images and terms are drawn from the Buddhist sutras or the sayings of the Southern School of Zen, whose doctrine of the Buddha as present in the minds of all men—of Buddha as the mind itself—he so often refers to. At the same time he is solidly within the Chinese poetic tradition, his language again and again echoing the works of earlier poets. . . .”32

With Han-shan we return repeatedly to the world of Cold Mountain, which was—as another of his translators, Arthur Waley, has pointed out—as much a state of mind as a locality. It was this, together with his advice to look within, that finally gives Han-shan his haunting voice of Ch’an. He seems not to have cared for the supercilious “masters” who dominated the competitive world of the monasteries. He invited them to join him in the rigorous but rewarding world of “Cold Mountain,” where the mind was Buddha and the heart was home.

When men see Han-shan
They all say he’s crazy
And not much to look at—
Dressed in rags and hides.
They don’t get what I say
& I don’t talk their language.
All I can say to those I meet:
“Try and make it to Cold Mountain

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