Good evening, I am Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chan, or as it is known in the west, Zen, and welcome to the Night of the Notables. Unfortunately, due to COVID restrictions, this year our event is being held online, but this is nothing to be thwarted about. As I once famously said, “One’s body is just a vessel for his mind…”, so what does it matter if we are unable to physically gather, as long as we can converse our understandings?
When people think of Buddhism, the first thing that comes to mind may be Japanese Sōhei monks or Chinese kung fu warriors, however, this impression isn’t entirely true, as these monks are actually not actually traditional Buddhist followers. Rather, they are followers of Zen, or later Shinto Buddhism, neither of which can represent West-Indian Buddhism. Buddhism originated in modern India, spread to China in the second century A.D. Stemming out from China, the religion became dominant in East and Southeast Asia, and now has over 200 million devoted followers and almost two billion believers.
However… this religion hasn’t always been as influential as it is today. When Buddhism was first introduced to eastern Asia during China’s Han dynasty, it was rejected multiple times. Even after it finally broke into the country, the religion only barely managed to stay afloat. So… how did this religion become so influential? Well, that’s where I came in.
Unlike most monks of the time, I came from an extremely poor family. As such, I knew neither how to read nor write, and so had to learn Buddhist scripture through lessons and experiences rather than scriptures or poems. Coming from such a different background, I saw the world from a perspective no other monk could, and with this advantage, I quickly realized why this religion was so unpopular and came up with a list of reforms. The new branch of altered Buddhism will later be known as Southern Zen, as opposed to the more traditional Northern Zen. As you have probably already guessed, my reforms were quite successful. Within a hundred years, Buddhism became the dominant religion of China, and within another century Southern Zen swept across East Asia.
Now, due to time constraints, we won’t be able to analyze every detail of my reforms, but here’s a general overview.
First, I noted the religion’s biggest problem, which was a lack of support. When I asked other monks why this was, the other monks told me that only those who deserve enlightenment will seek it, and we don’t have more believers since only very few people deserve the pursuit of knowledge. However, I disagreed. If Buddha took pity on the peasants, why only offer them food and shelter, but not enlightenment? “A spark of light can wipe away a century of darkness, a thought of wisdom can clear a life of stupidity”, so what does it matter if someone started with a bad foundation?
After careful consideration, I came to a different conclusion. Having come from a rural village myself, I understood the difficulty it was for information to travel. It wasn’t that no one was interested in Buddhism, but rather that very few people even knew of the religion’s existence. To solve this problem, I encouraged my students to travel and visit others, as opposed to the more traditional method of sitting and waiting for others to seek you. This method proved very effective, and within a year everyone within several hundred miles of our temple knew about Buddhism. However, even though our temple was always full of visitors, very few people actually chose to stay. Most would just come in, ask some questions, and quickly leave again.
At first, I confused as to why no one showed any interest, but soon I saw the problem, illiteracy. Traditionally, Buddhist teachings have always been written in sultras, translated straight from Sanskrit, and was very complex and difficult to understand. Having never understood these sultras my self, I can relate to the frustration of not being able to read, and how discouraging it could be for someone potentially interested in the religion. To solve this problem, I simplified these scriptures, and even rewrote some of them as poems or songs, only covering the essence and scrapping all the irrelevant text, making them very easy to memorize and understand.
After solving these two major problems, I also implemented a variety of smaller changes, and the results were spectacular. As I mentioned above, within fifty years of my death Zen spread across China, and within another century it swept across Asia, influencing the world in a way that only Christianity can compare with.
Some people may have heard about Koans before, but do you understand them? The word Koan originated from the Chinese word, Gong An, meaning official file. These files are stories purposefully left vague and up to the reader’s interpretation, which can often be used in philosophical conversations or quoted in religious debates. Recently, I have been reading through Koans, and several really interesting stories caught my attention. If you are interested in reading these stories or discussing them with me, please scroll down to the comments section.
That was my presentation, thank you for your time, and feel free to comment on any questions. Thank you!