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. 

The Tang Dynasty (618–907) is considered the zenith of Chinese history and culture, often referred to as a "Golden Age."  And Chan was woven very deeply into the fabric of this period.

As is clearly illustrated in The Circle of the Way, while the Partiarchs occupy center stage, there was an enormous amount of development in Chan thought, practice, the arts, poetry, and more.

tang dynsasty from mma

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song of mind

Song of Mind: Wisdom from the Zen Classic Xin Ming

By Chan Master Sheng Yen

"No words can explain enlightenment," says the seventh-century Chan classic Xin Ming, or "Song of Mind," attributed to Niutou Farong (594–657).  Yet, paradoxically, this poem is a masterpiece of expressing the inexpressible.

In his commentary on it, the twentieth-century Chan Master Sheng Yen takes a practical approach in presenting this text, opening up the language of the Xin Ming to show students how to approach meditation, how to deal with problems that arise in their spiritual practice, and how to accomplish the imperative task of integrating this practice into every aspect of one's life. "True understanding comes only with direct experience," according to Master Sheng Yen. "These lectures, the Buddhist sutras, songs, poems, and commentaries are useful only insofar as they encourage you to practice and incorporate the Dharma [teachings] into your daily life."


five houses of zen

The Five Houses of Zen

Translated by Thomas Cleary

For all its emphasis on the direct experience of insight without reliance on the products of the intellect, the Zen tradition has created a huge body of writings. Of this literature, the writings associated with the so-called Five Houses of Zen which all arose in the Tang, are widely considered to be preeminent. These Five Houses were not schools or sects but styles of Zen teaching represented by some of the most outstanding masters in Zen history. The writings of these great Zen teachers are presented here and include:

  • The sayings of Pai-chang, famous for his Zen dictum “A day without work, a day without food”
  • Selections from Kuei-shan’s collection of Zen admonitions, considered essential reading by numerous Buddhist teachers
  • Sun-chi’s unique discussion of the inner meaning of the circular symbol in Zen teaching
  • Sayings of Huang-po from The Essential Method of Transmission of Mind
  • Excerpts from The Record of Lin-chi, a great classical text of Zen literature
  • Ts’ao-shan’s presentation of the famous teaching device known as the Five Ranks
  • Selections of poetry from the Cascade Collection by Hsueh-tou, renowned for his poetic commentaries on the classic Blue Cliff Record
  • Yung-ming’s teachings on how to balance the two basic aspects of meditation: concentration and insight
Zen Master Yunmen

Zen Master Yunmen: His Life and Essential Sayings

By Urs App

For a closer look at the House of Yunmen, the best resource is this essential work on Yunmen Wenyan (c. 864–949), a master of the Chan tradition and one of the most influential teachers in its history, showing up in many famous koans, including one in which he's credited with the famous line, "Every day is a good day." His teachings are said to permeate heaven and earth, to address immediately and totally the state and conditions of his audience, and to cut off even the slightest trace of duality. In this classic study of Master Yunmen, historian and Buddhist scholar Urs App clearly elucidates the encompassing and penetrating nature of Yunmen’s teachings, provides pioneering translations of his numerous talks and dialogues, and includes a brief history of Chan, a biography of the master, and a wealth of resource materials.

Infinite Mirror

The Infinite Mirror: Commentaries on Two Chan Classics

By Chan Master Sheng Yen

Here is the inimitable Master Sheng Yen at his best, illuminating the ancient texts of the Chan tradition to show how wonderfully practical they really are, even for us today. The texts, written by two of the founders of the Ts’ao-tung (Caodang) sect of Chan Buddhism, are poems entitled Inquiry into Matching Halves and Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi. Both emphasize the Chan view that wisdom is not separate from vexation, and both speak of the levels of awareness through which one must pass on the way to realization. Both are also works of Buddhist philosophy that can serve as guides to spiritual practice for anyone.

Just This Is It

Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness

By Taigen Dan Leighton

The joy of “suchness”—the absolute and true nature inherent in all appearance—shines through the teachings attributed to Dongshan Liangjie (807–869), the legendary founder of the Caodong lineage of Chan Buddhism (the predecessor of Sōtō Zen). Taigen Dan Leighton looks at the teachings attributed to Dongshan—in his Recorded Sayings and in the numerous koans in which he is featured as a character—to reveal the subtlety and depth of the teaching on the nature of reality that Dongshan expresses. Included are an analysis of the well-known teaching poem “Jewel Mirror Samadhi” and of the understanding of particular and universal expressed in the teaching of the Five Degrees. “The teachings embedded in the stories about Dongshan provide a rich legacy that has been sustained in practice traditions,” says Taigen. “Dongshan’s subtle teachings about engagement with suchness remain vital today for Zen people and are available for all those who wish to find meaning amid the challenges to modern life.”

Zen Essence: The Science of Freedom

Translated by Thomas Cleary

Drawn from the records of Chan masters of the Tang and Song dynasties, this collection may surprise some readers.

Contributors include the Chan masters Mazu, Hadhi, Linji, Yangshan, Fayan, Fenyang,  Xuedou, Huanglong, Yangqi, Wuzu, Yuanwu, Foyan, Dahui, Hongzhi, Ying-an,  Mi-an, Xiatang, and Yuansou,

In contrast to the popular image of Zen as an authoritarian, monastic tradition deeply rooted in Asian culture, these passages portray Zen as remarkably flexible, adaptive to contemporary and individual needs, and transcending cultural boundaries.

The readings contained in Zen Essence emphasize that the practice of Zen requires consciousness alone and does not depend on a background in Zen Buddhism and Asian culture. The true essence of Zen resides in the relationship between mind and culture, whatever that culture might be. This unique collection of writings creates a picture of Zen not as a religion or philosophy, but as a practical science of freedom.

Further teachings of some of these masters, especially the earlier ones, are recorded in the translation and appendices of The Blue Cliff Record.

Next article in the series: Zen in the Song Dynasty >