circle of the way



This is part of a series of articles on the arc of Zen thought, practice, and history, as presented in The Circle of the Way: A Concise History of Zen from the Buddha to the Modern WorldYou can start at the beginning of this series or simply explore from here. 

Explore Zen Buddhism: A Reader's Guide to the Great Works 


Chan in China

> The Works of the Chan and Zen Patriarchs

Zen in Korea

Zen in Japan

Additional Resources

Early Zen and the Zen Patriarchs

The traditional story of the birth of Zen begins with the arrival of Bodhidharma, who became known as the First Patriarch and continues through the lives of five more patriarchs. Each of these revered sages, the story goes, chose his best student to succeed him as patriarch of the lineage—a rite of passage marked by passing on the robe and bowl of Bodhidharma. This tradition ended with the sixth and last patriarch, Dajian Huineng, who died in 713.
—The Circle of the Way

Below are some of the works we publish that relate to this time period.

Early Chan in China

Zen Enlightenment

Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning

By Heinrich Dumoulin

This is a complement to The Circle of the Way, and has a nice overview of the early roots of Chan in China.  Here, the renowned scholar Heinrich Dumoulin traces the development of Zen and the concept of enlightenment from its origins in India through its development in China to its fruition in Japan. Delineating the Buddhist origins, as well as the Taoist and yogic influences, he traces the historical path Zen has followed.

In both this work and The Circle of the Way, there are great overviews of Buddhism's arrival in China, it great translators like the peripatetic polyglot Dharmaraksha (ca. 230–307) and the Kuchan-raised and Kashmir-educated Kumarajiva (344–413), and the Zen Patriarchs.

Zen Dawn

Zen Dawn: Early Zen Texts from Tun Huang

Translated by J. C. Cleary

This important book brings together three long-lost texts from the first half of the eighth century, the earliest known writings on Zen.

  • Records of the Teachers and Students of the Lanka presents a complete set of biographies of the Zen patriarchs.
  • Bodhidharma's Treatise on Contemplating Mind— written in the form of a dialogue between the first Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma, and his successor, Huke—views all the various practices of the Bodhisattva path from the perspective of cultivating mind.
  • Treatise on Sudden Enlightenment presents a series of questions and answers illuminating the true nature of "sudden enlightenment" as pure, undifferentiated mind.

Chan or Taoism?

In The Circle of the Way, O'Brien takes on the notion that Taoism fundamentally changed Buddhism as it arrived in China.  She says,

Although Zen and Daoism do share points of agreement, Zen is best understood within the context of Mahayana Buddhism. Although Zen in China sometimes adopted Daoist vocabulary and iconography, it’s important to be aware that the perspectives behind the words and images differed from Daoist ones. I believe making too much of the Daoist-Zen connection gets in the way of understanding Zen, and no doubt it gets in the way of understanding Daoism as well.

To read a counter argument that Taoism is indeed profoundly influential on Chan, look no further than sinologist and poet David Hinton's China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen.

In this work, Hinton describes Ch’an as a kind of anti-Buddhism, a radical and wild practice aspiring to a deeply ecological liberation: the integration of individual consciousness with landscape and with a Cosmos seen as harmonious and alive.

He presents this original form of Zen with his trademark clarity and elegance, each chapter exploring in enlightening ways a core Ch’an concept—such as meditation, mind, Buddha, awakening—as it was originally understood and practiced in ancient China. Finally, by examining a range of standard translations in the appendix, he shows how this original understanding and practice of Ch’an/Zen is almost entirely missing in contemporary American Zen, because it was lost in Ch’an’s migration from China through Japan and on to the West.

Sidebar: Chan and Taosim

However, if you want to go beyond the polemics of Taoism's relationship with Chan, there is no better place to turn than Master of the Three Ways: Reflections of a Chinese Sage on Living a Satisfying Life by Hung Ying-ming.  The "Three Ways" referred to are of course Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism and this author, nearly one thousand years after the patriarchs, presents a beautiful work that will leave you with a deep appreciation of how these streams were not so much at odds but formed a coherent whole.

In the foreword, Red Pine (Bill Porter) describes how Chinese society reconciles these streams:

Even where individuals have chosen to emphasize one over the others in their own lives, they have rarely turned their back on the others. This is because they have recognized that each addresses a different aspect of the human condition: Taoism seeks the harmony of the body, Confucianism seeks the harmony of society, and Buddhism seeks the harmony of the mind.

The Six Zen Patriarchs

And now for the Zen Patriarchs themselves.

There are traditionally listed as follows, though there is a lot more to the story you will discover in The Circle of the Way.

  1. Bodhidharma (5th/6th century)
  2. Dazu Huike (487–593)
  3. Jianzhi Sengcan (529–606)
  4. Dayi Daoxin (580–651)
  5. Daman Hongren (601–74)
  6. Dajian Huineng (638–713)
The Buddhist Partriarchs, Korea,  17th-18th century
The Los Angeles County Museum



In The Circle of the Way, O'Brien relates,

Four sermons attributed to Bodhidharma survive to the present day. Of those, the brief Two Entrances and Four Practices, prefaced by Tanlin in the sixth century and discovered at Dunhuang, has the strongest claim to being a genuine work of Bodhidharma’s. The authorship of the others is disputed, in part because they don’t appear to be old enough to have been composed by Bodhidharma.

The Essence of Chan: A Guide to Life and Practice according to the Teachings of Bodhidharma

by Guo Gu

This book, a translation and commentary on one of Bodhidharma’s most important texts, Two Entries and Four Practices,  explores Bodhidharma’s revolutionary teachings. Guo Gu, both a reknownded teacher of Chan and professor at Florida State University, weaves his commentary through modern and relatable contexts, showing that this centuries-old wisdom is just as crucial for life now as it was when it first came to be.

Huike sitting behind Bodhidharma
Cleveland Mueum of Art


Dazu Huike was the second Patriarch and comes up in many of our books, but is covered most thoroughly in The Circle of the Way where O'Brien recounts his famous meeting at Shaolin with Bodhidharma that is recorded in the Wumenguan, or Gateless Barrier. After lamenting how little he comes up in the encounters of most modern-day Zen students, she gives a wonderful account of him over the next six pages. Briefly,

The scholar turned to Buddhism after the deaths of his parents. In 519, when he was thirty-two years old, he was ordained a Buddhist monk in a temple near Luoyang. About eight years later, he left in search of Bodhidharma, and he found the old monk in his cave near Shaolin Temple. At the time of this meeting, Huike was about forty years old. Huike studied with Bodhidharma for six years and became Bodhidharma’s chief dharma heir and successor.

Jianzhi Sengcan

The Third Patriarch is often considered retroactively inserted into the Patriarchs, but there is a wonderful text attributed to him.

Faith in Mind: A Commentary on Seng Ts'an's Classic

It begins with this verse:

The Supreme Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose.
Neither love nor hate,
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far from it as heaven and earth.

These vivid lines begin one of the most beloved  of all Zen texts, the Hsin Hsin Ming (“Faith in Mind”). The Hsin Hsin Ming is a masterpiece of economy, expressing the profoundest truth of the enlightened mind in only a few short pages. In this work, 20th century Chan Master Sheng Yen’s offers an approach is unique among commentaries on the text: he views it as a supremely useful and practical guide to meditation practice. “I do not adopt a scholarly point of view or analytical approach,” he says. “Rather, I use the poem as a taking-off point to inspire the practitioner and deal with issues that arise during the course of practice. True faith in mind is the belief grounded in realization that we have a fundamental, unmoving, and unchanging mind. This mind is precisely Buddha mind.


From The Circle of the Way:

It’s believed Daoxin valued meditation as the most essential practice. “Sit earnestly in meditation!” he is reputed to have said. “The sitting in meditation is basic to all else.” Traditional sources associate Daoxin with the Lankavatara Sutra and also with the prajnaparamita sutras, known for their deep teachings on Madhyamaka.

While we do not publish any works directly authored by Daoxin, he is discussed in many books including Enlightenment Unfolds,

From the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye:

When Daoxin, who would later become Zen Master Dayi, the Fourth Chinese Ancestor, was fourteen, he met Sengcan, the Third Chinese Ancestor, and then labored for nine years. After inheriting the authentic teaching of buddha ancestors, Daoxin kept his mind gathered and did not sleep with his side on the mat for almost sixty years. In his guidance he did not discriminate between enemies and friends, so his virtue prevailed among humans and devas.

In the sixteenth year of the Zhenguan Era [642], Emperor Tai, in admiration of Daoxin’s flavor of the way, invited him to the capital, wishing to test the hue of his dharma. Daoxin respectfully declined three times, claiming ill health. At the fourth summons, the Emperor ordered the messenger to cut off Daoxin’s head if he declined again. The messenger saw Daoxin and relayed the imperial order to him. With complete composure Daoxin stretched out his neck and made ready for the sword. Extremely impressed, the messenger went back to the capital and wrote a report to the Emperor, who admired Daoxin even more. He expressed his appreciation by sending Daoxin a gift of rare silk.

Thus, the continuous practice of Daoxin, who was not attached to his bodily life as bodily life and tried to avoid becoming intimate with kings and ministers, is something rarely encountered in a thousand years. Because Emperor Tai was a just king, Daoxin had nothing against him. The Emperor admired Daoxin because he did not spare his own bodily life and was willing to die. Daoxin focused on his continuous practice, not without reason but with respect for the passage of time. Compared with the current tendency in this declining age when many people try to find favor with the emperors, Daoxin’s refusal of the three imperial requests is remarkable.

On the fourth day, the intercalary ninth month, the second year of the Yonghui Era [651] during the reign of Emperor Gao, Daoxin gave instruction to his students, saying, 'All things are liberated. You should guard your mind and teach future generations.'

After saying this, he sat at ease and passed away. He was seventy-two years old. A stupa was built for him on the mountain. On the eighth day of the fourth month of the following year, the door to the stupa opened of itself, and inside it, his body looked as if he were alive. After that his students kept the door open.

Know Daoxin’s words: All things are liberated. It is not merely that all things are empty or all things are all things, but that all things are liberated. Daoxin had continuous practice before and after entering the stupa. To assume that all living beings die is a narrow view. To assume that the dead do not perceive is a limited idea. Do not follow these views when you study the way. There may be those who go beyond death. There may be dead people who perceive.

Daman Hongren (601–674)

The fifth patriarch is described in The Circle of the Way:

Hongren spent his entire life around Mount Shuangfeng; he was born there, studied with Daoxin there, taught there, and died there. He broke with the tradition of striking out on his own after receiving transmission, and instead he stayed with Daoxin. Three years after Daoxin’s death, Hongren decided to establish another monastery. The new monastery was only a half-day’s walk east from Daoxin’s place, and it came to be called Dongshan, or “East Mountain.” Daoxin’s and Hongren’s legacy of instruction would come to be called the East Mountain teachings.

Minding Mind

This work consists of several meditation manuals from a wide period.  The first manual, Treatise on the Supreme Vehicle, is attributed to Hongren.

Dajian Huineng

The Circle of the Way gives a detailed account of the Sixth Patriarch. The title was initially attributed to Yuquan Shenxiu, but was later transferred to Huineng.

The best work well-known work of Huineng is of course the Platform Sutra, also called the Sutra of Huineng.  We have two translations of this text,  The Sutra of Hui-neng, Grand Master of Zen, translated by Thomas Cleary, and The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng, translated by Wong Mou-lam and A. F. Price.  The former has the benefit of having a full commentary by Huineng on the Diamond Sutra.

sutra of huineng

The Sutra of Hui-neng, Grand Master of Zen: With Hui-neng's Commentary on the Diamond Sutra

Translated by Thomas Cleary

Hui-neng (638–713) is perhaps the most beloved and respected figure in Zen Buddhism. An illiterate woodcutter who attained enlightenment in a flash, he became the Sixth Patriarch of Chinese Zen, and is regarded as the founder of the "Sudden Enlightenment" school. He is the supreme exemplar of the fact that neither education nor social background has any bearing on the attainment of enlightenment. This collection of his talks, also known as the Platform or Altar Sutra, is the only Zen record of its kind to be generally honored with the appellation sutra, or scripture.

The Sutra of Hui-neng is here accompanied by Hui-neng's verse-by-verse commentary on the Diamond Sutra—in its very first published English translation ever.


The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng

Translated by Wong Mou-lam and A. F. Price

The Diamond Sutra, composed in India in the fourth century CE, is one of the most treasured works of Buddhist literature and is the oldest existing printed book in the world. It is known as the Diamond Sutra because its teachings are said to be like diamonds that cut away all dualistic thought, releasing one from the attachment to objects and bringing one to the further shore of enlightenment. The format of this important sutra is presented as a conversation between the Buddha and one of his disciples. The Sutra of Hui-neng, also known as the Platform Sutra, contains the autobiography of a pivotal figure in Zen history and some of the most profound passages of Zen literature. Hui-neng (638–713) was the sixth patriarch of Zen in China, but is often regarded as the true father of the Zen tradition. He was a poor, illiterate woodcutter who is said to have attained enlightenment upon hearing a recitation of the Diamond Sutra. Together, these two scriptures present the central teaching of the Zen Buddhist tradition and are essential reading for all students of Buddhism.

Continue to next article in this series: Zen in the Tang Dynasty >