Xuanjue, one of the greatest Chan masters

- through Francois Leclercq

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A current moment of Buddhism in China.

From November 23 to 26, 2018, a great Buddhist celebration took place in the city of Wenzhou located south of Shanghai around the figure of Yongjia Dashi – the Master of Yongjia – whose 1035th birthday was celebrated.

Yongjia Dashi, also known as Xuanjue, one of the great masters of the Chan lineage, who lived under the glorious imperial Tang dynasty (618-907), between 665 and 713, left his name in the story for two main reasons.

The first relates to the circumstances of his awakening to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng. Yongjia Dashi, who was traveling through a region in southern China (now Zhejiang), met one of Huineng's disciples there. During their interview, the latter asked Yongjia Dashi with which master he had studied. Yongjia replied that he had been trained in the Tiantai school (1), but that he had no particular master, except the Sutra of Vimalakîrti (2) which he read tirelessly. Huineng's disciple, impressed by his understanding of the Dharma, suggested that he come and meet the Sixth Patriarch to initiate him into Chan. The latter immediately took the road to the monastery of Caoxi where Huineng lived. He arrived at dusk and, without any other form of ceremony, rushed to the dais on which the Patriarch was meditating, walked around it three times and planted himself facing him. The assembly, dumbfounded by such a lack of civility, stirred, but Huineng smiled. China is a civilization of etiquette and marks of politeness, in addition to being precise and extremely codified, must be abundant and repeated. Nothing is worse in this country than a cavalier attitude and that of Yongjia obviously passed for such in the eyes of all. To defuse the excitement of the room, Huineng bluntly asked the newcomer to explain his behavior. Yongjia Dashi replied that death could strike at any moment, he could not waste any more time in ceremonies and preferred to greet the Sixth Patriarch, so that without waiting, he agrees to enlighten him on the meaning of Dharma. Yongjia Dashi's way of greeting Huineng, quick as it was, was nonetheless fundamentally respectful and even profound. Indeed, traditionally, the circumambulation is practiced around the Stupas, these funerary monuments which initially served to collect the remains of Sakyamuni. By circling Huineng three times, Yongjia Dashi thus recognized the Patriarch as the repository of the teachings of the Awakened and, from then on, all was said!

One night guest

So this is how the meeting between Huineng and Yongjia Dashi began. It lasted only one night – which earned him the nickname of “the one-night guest”. Tradition reports that, for the most part, the conversation between the two masters focused on what is called in Buddhism the "unborn" (anutpada) and which is precisely what we are concerned about. awake. Huineng suggested to his disciple the idea that becoming one with the unborn was the whole meaning of Dharma. Yongjia Dashi was silent for a long moment, then greeted Huineng and prepared to leave. The latter stopped him by asking him if he was leaving a little too quickly. To which the one-night disciple replied that 'fast' and 'slow' were fabrications of the mind and that no such thing existed in the space of the 'unborn'. Huineng replied that he had a good understanding of the notion of "unborn". But Yongjia Dashi in turn replied that as a notion, the "unborn" still amounted to being only a fabrication of the mind. Huineng added, “Who makes the distinction between what is manufacturing and what is not? and Yongjia Dashi replied, "Awards are still fabrications!" At this last reply, the Sixth Patriarch confirmed Yongxia's Awakening. They spent the end of the night together and, in the early morning, Yongjia Dashi left Caoxi and although never to see Huineng again, he has since been considered to continue the lineage of Southern Chan, known as Sudden Awakening and one of his direct heirs.

Aimless, emotionless, designless

The second reason explaining the importance of Yongjia Dashi is that he was the author of a very essential text entitled Zhendao Ge, which is often rendered as "Song of Enlightenment", or more literally "Song of the fully tried path". This rather long text brings together what could be called the "profession of faith" of Chan Buddhism and more particularly of its "subitist" branch, called dùn jiào mén, that is to say "the School of immediate access. The interpretative strength of this school comes from the fact that it does not make Awakening a goal to be achieved in itself, but that it gives it an ever-present dimension, from which everything unfolds. We could sum it up like this: first the awakening, then the dharma, the teaching. The received idea wants that the dharma is what leads to enlightenment. But, for Yongjia Dashi, there is no dharma until one is in relation to enlightenment. It is therefore necessary, in a way, to be awake in order to be able to practice the path of enlightenment. Under these conditions, dharma is no longer the progressive quest for future enlightenment, but the infinite unfolding of the direct experience of enlightenment. Yongjia Dashi's practice of Chan, faithful to Huineng's intuition, is therefore described as “sudden” (dùn). By this term, we must understand what happens surreptitiously, without warning, that is to say without preconditions; and which escapes calculation, premeditation, will, hope or fear… which Yongjia formulates with these words: “The door to Chan is the dissolution of consciousness”; and also: “Meditating! Have recourse neither to emotions nor to conceptions” or again: “Sudden awakening has recourse to the aimless, the emotionless, the conceptionless. ".

Dharma is therefore no longer the progressive quest for future enlightenment, but the infinite unfolding of the direct experience of enlightenment.

Thus, the absence of consciousness, that is to say of expectations, frees the experience of Awakening from all projection and restores it to what is called in Buddhism the "unborn". understood in the sense of not manufactured, not built, not elaborated, not projected. It would also be necessary to add, to this idea of ​​suddenness, that equally essential of immediacy, of absence of intermediary, in order to complete the meaning of the Chinese dùn. From this perspective, Awakening cannot be understood as the end of a journey either. Awakening is not achieved and, even better, is not realised. In other words, one cannot be more or less awake. Nor can one approach or move away from its threshold. Awakening is not a finish line and one does not become an Awakened either! This understanding of the Dharma, far from being an invention of Yongjia Dashi, is also expressed in quite similar terms, in the teaching of the tantras of Tibetan Buddhism called "Mahamudra". And, there are many who agree that these are the interpretive peaks of Buddhism, among which we must therefore count this magnificent testimony that is the Zhendao Ge.

Tomorrow's Chinese Buddhism

After this short reminder, let's get back to the news. As we announced at the beginning of this article, the city of Wenzhou celebrated the memory of this master who bears his name at the end of November, since in fact, Yongjia is the ancient name of this southern city of Zhejiang. Southern China has been a land of choice for Buddhism, especially for Chan, whose establishment was strong enough to resist the many political clashes that the country experienced, unlike other schools now legendary, such as the Tiantai, the Huayan (3) or the Sanlun (4), which did not survive, despite their prestige and the wealth of their teachings. However, it is clear, in the contemporary light of these anniversary days, that Buddhism has remained very present and active in this region! More than a thousand monks and probably three times the lay faithful (including many women) have indeed gathered in the two sites of the city dedicated to Yongjia Dashi, namely the immense temple of Tou Tuo and the pagoda Miao Guo, where the Master's relics are deposited. On November 24 in the morning (6 am) began the practices of recitation of sutras such as the Vimalakirti, the Lotus (5) and the Prajnaparamita (6). Then, the abbot of the temple of Tou Tuo presided in the building called "The Gate of Chan" the ceremony known as "the elevation of the Dharma", and which consists of a reading of the Zhendao Ge, a commentary, all interspersed with songs and meditation sessions. Finally, the morning over, the liturgy continued in another building – “the Space of Mahâvîra” – where a large assembly of monks paid homage to Sakyamuni Buddha and the Three Jewels. In all, therefore, six hours of ceremony, without interruption and without dispersion of the crowd!

In order to accompany this commemoration in a less "religious" way, the Buddhist association of Wenzhou (see box) who organized the event, had invited a number of academics to speak in the afternoon around Yongjia Dashi. A delegation of twenty-one professors and researchers from China, Taiwan, Japan and France met to present their work and participate in discussions with the monks and the fairly large public. Admittedly, the university exercise remains too theoretical and therefore distant, nevertheless, Buddhist research is very active in China, as are also the liturgical manifestations. Thus, if for several decades, we have witnessed a clear decline of Buddhism in China, it is clear that things have changed and that this tradition is coming back to life before our eyes. However, this effective recovery does not have the same vitality as that which prevailed during the glorious periods of Chinese Buddhism. It is for the moment only the reactivation of old forms and does not yet seem to go beyond the heritage framework of remembrance and commemoration. However, China has changed radically and if the recall of the past is something necessary, it should not be done to the detriment of a lucidity carried on the present state and on the future which opens very different from this who had been. It is therefore up to China to invent a Buddhism that responds to its time and whose form still remains unnoticed. If that happens, and it may very well not happen, it will undoubtedly be a new and quite another Asian Renaissance. But for the time being in China, time is entirely devoted to the memory which returns and which we can once again celebrate. And so it was that the next day, academics and monks met at the Miao Guo Pagoda, to repeat together the old gestures that had not been done for a long time, namely turning around the Stupa (this is i.e. from the Pagoda) 108 times, some singing, others silently.

Of course, the moment was moving, especially since being the only Westerner present, I had the honor of accompanying the abbot at the head of the procession. Even if these ceremonies are tinged with a certain folklore, undoubtedly inevitable, it must be recognized that at each of our steps the past and the present collided, just like the familiar and the foreign. This is undoubtedly the strong feeling of the community, of the sangha

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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