Relations between China and Japan fluctuated over the centuries, reflecting concerns internal to each nation as much as attitudes towards one another. After the flurry of visits to China inaugurated by Prince Shotoku began to decline, Japan as a whole became less interested in Chinese culture, and the Buddhist tradition remained the vital link between them. Yet Buddhist teachings readily accommodated themselves to Japanese forms and needed little more than periodic infusions from Ch'ang-an or T'ien-t'ai to flourish. Just at the time ch'an, meditation, underwent its most dramatic developments in China, Japan largely forgot its great western neighbour, but when zen reached Japan, it was in a form created by the overwhelming presence of one Chinese ch'an adept.
In 845 the Great Persecution severely damaged Buddhist scholar ship by destroying centres of study, monasteries and temples. Within two years almost five thousand large temples and forty thousand small centres had been destroyed and over a quarter million monks and nuns were forced back into secular life. As a consequence, the only form of Chinese Buddhist thought and practice which survived relatively unscathed was the Southern form of ch'an, which had remained rural, idiosyncratic and outside all establishments. The Buddhist recovery was thus a spread of Southern ch'an, which divided into five schools, two of which became predominant and eventually came to Japan. The first was founded by Lin-chi, whose name came to distinguish the school later known in Japan as Rinzai. Even though Eisai brought Rinzai zen to Japan in the twelfth century, Lin-chi was always recognized as its founder.
Lin-chi I-hsuan was born in the early years of the ninth century in present-day Shantung province. Although the details of his early life are sketchy, it seems that from an early age his inherent brilliance was recognized. He was a model child, filled with reverence for his parents, but he was soon drawn to buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha, and he became a monk. As a youth he studied the sutras and the vinaya rules for monks, as well as numerous commentaries on sacred texts. By the time he was in his twenties, however, he had lost interest in orthodox practices and rituals and he yearned for direct insight, prajna, into Buddha's message. So he began to travel in search of a teacher, eventually arriving at the monastery of Huang-po, perhaps the most famous ch'an teacher of the day. He listened to Huang-po's discourses and followed the practices of the monastery for three years without apparent results. He was on the verge of giving up when the head disciple suggested that he seek a private interview with Huang-po. He did so, and when he asked his teacher the standard question, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?" Huang-po hit him with a stick. Twice again he visited Huang-po, and both times met with similarly curt responses. In despair, he told the head monk that he was leaving to seek his goal elsewhere.
When Lin-chi met Huang-po to say farewell, the old master gently advised him to go to the nearby monastery presided over by Ta-yu, and that counsel changed Lin-chi's life. Upon presenting himself to Ta-yu and explaining his story, Ta-yu said, "Huang-po treated you with great compassion. He only wanted to dispel your distress." Suddenly Lin-chi understood and replied, "So Huang-po's doctrine is very simple; there's nothing to it at all!"
"You scamp!" Ta-yu yelled, grabbing Lin-chi. "You complained that Huang-po's teaching was incomprehensible. Now you say there's nothing to it. What have you realized. Speak quickly!"
Lin-chi responded by poking Ta-yu's ribs, and Ta-yu said, "Your teacher is Huang-po. You do not concern me." Lin-chi returned at once to Huang-po's monastery and presented himself to his teacher.
"Haven't you come back a bit soon?" Huang-po asked. "You only just left."
"Because you have been so kind to me," Lin-chi replied, "I have returned quickly." Then Lin-chi told of his meeting with Ta-yu.
"What a big mouth that old man has", Huang-po declared. "When I next see him, I'll give him a taste of my staff."
"Why wait?" Lin-chi responded. "I can do it now", and he slapped Huang-po's face.
Huang-po said, "This crazy monk is plucking the tiger's whiskers", and Lin-chi let out a yell.
"Take him to the assembly hall", Huang-po instructed an attendant.
Perhaps Huang-po and Ta-yu worked together to effect Lin-chi's sudden insight, for they both certainly recognized it. Although Lin-chi's breakthrough was sudden, the result of a seemingly uncalculated remark, Lin-chi had worked long and hard from early youth to achieve it. The moment of realization was virtually instantaneous, but the road which led to it was arduous. When he later described that moment, he placed it outside the study of the sacred canon, outside the rituals, practices and commentaries, and even beyond meditation itself, but he in no way devalued the "exhaustive investigation" and "grinding discipline" that preceded it. His rejection of the ultimate efficacy of learning and practice would take radical forms, but they grew out of a sophisticated metaphysical understanding of buddhadharma, the Teaching of Buddha, and an equally sublime grasp of metapsychology.
Lin-chi remained for a time with Huang-po, even though their work seemingly was complete. Years later Lin-chi warned that although enlightenment constituted a breakthrough, like splitting a hair with a sharp sword, the sword of insight has to be continually sharpened. Apparently Huang-po and Lin-chi enjoyed one another's company, for they often laboured together, exchanging witty comments which pointed to an underlying truth. For example, the earliest record of ch'an Buddhist illumination experiences, The Transmission of the Lamp, contains the following story:
Some thinkers have seen in this joke the official passing of the teaching, the transmission of the lamp, from Huang-po to Lin-chi.
Eventually Lin-chi took leave of his teacher and went out into the world. As Buddhist institutions came under attack during the Great Persecution, many ch'an monks and disciples, who did not require temples, shrines, libraries or special dress, melted into the rural populations where they lived. Lin-chi, however, simply continued to travel and teach as if he were oblivious to the chaos breaking out around him. When he lived in the prefecture of Ho for a time, he instructed local monks. The regional governor, Councillor Wang, visited him and enquired about ch'an practices. "Do the monks of this monastery read the sutras?" Wang asked.
"No," Lin-chi answered, "they don't read sutras."
"Do they learn meditation?" Wang persisted.
"No," Lin-chi said, "they don't learn meditation."
"If they don't read sutras or learn meditation, what are they doing?"
"All I do", Lin-chi answered, "is make them become buddhas and patriarchs."
In time Lin-chi settled at the Hsing-hua Temple in Taming prefecture, and here his teachings were recorded for posterity. Whilst he uncompromisingly rejected any notion that intellectual development aided one to gain enlightenment, he knew that a mere refusal to think – on principle or out of laziness – was also useless. Since human beings do in fact use their discursive minds, Lin-chi evolved a subtle dialectic which challenged conventional rationality whilst borrowing strategies, first used metaphysically by Nagarjuna, for metapsychological ends. Lin-chi did not want to paint a picture of Reality. Rather, he wanted people to experience Reality, which is present at every moment in every place. His emphasis upon immediate experience transformed the ch'an doctrine of mind-only into a method in which all that is needed is to be found already present in the human being. Thus he took Huang-po's teaching on the universal mind and made it existential, something to be rather than to know, and added to the ch'an use of the mysterious gesture or statement – what would come to be the koan – and the sudden swing of the stick a third element: the quick shout, which constituted a response free of discursive content. Nonetheless, he did not confuse gestures or inarticulate sounds with proof of illumination. According to the Recorded Sayings of Lin-chi:
Huang-po had criticized the flaccid and ritualized forms of court and monastic Buddhist orthodoxy because he believed that institutionalized religiosity hindered disciples in their quest for illumination. Lin-chi turned his attention to ch'an itself, partly because the Great Persecution had almost destroyed temple and monastic Buddhist schools, and partly because he saw a great deal of fashionable and irresponsible showmanship passing for pro found spiritual instruction. He did not spare his own disciples in refusing to tolerate any kind of imitation. Once in the assembly of monks he said:
For Lin-chi, teachers should not teach without compelling students to experience truth for themselves. Word, shout, gesture and action should not be explanatory but rather revelatory, stunning the discursive intellect into momentary paralysis so that the disciple might glimpse what lay behind it.
Lin-chi's work was successful by worldly standards, for his school prospered and monks came to him from all over China. He laid the foundations of a school which dominated ch'an thought and was transported to Japan as Rinzai zen, one of the two chief schools of zen practice. Yet he found himself becoming a national monument in his old age, and he protested being enshrined as the standard by which all others were measured. When he announced his immanent departure from the world, he called his disciples together and asked them what his teaching was that should be preserved. San-sheng immediately gave a shout and Lin-chi said, "Who could believe that the treasure of my teachings would be transmitted to this blind ass?" But even a shout required a context, and Lin-chi composed a gatha or verse:
Having finished his verse, Lin-chi abandoned his body. Upon his death, the imperial court, no longer interested in persecution, bestowed upon him the honorific posthumous name of Hui-chao, 'Wise Illumination'.
Lin-chi held that the human being was bound by sequential cognition, the persistent tendency of one thought to lead to the next. Whether a particular sequence is rambling or the result of a rigorous logical exegesis, the stream of discursive consciousness masks the real man behind it. Whether the mind thus involved dabbles in an endless series of gross pleasures, musters the ambition to seek power or fame, or pursues sublime spiritual doctrines, the taut chain of discursive thought blinds it to truth. Intuitive wisdom is not the product of some particular kind of discursive mentation; it is the sundering of the chain, the stopping of the process. Hence enlightenment will always appear suddenly, even though long and careful preparation goes before it. A teacher must make use of the very means which the discursive mind employs to build its winding chains of thoughts, but he uses them in ways that mind does not expect, hoping thereby to break the chain. Speaking of his famous shout, Lin-chi told a monk that sometimes his shout was like the bejewelled sword of a spirit-king, hard and durable; sometimes it was like a crouching lion, strong, taut ai~4 powerful; again, it might be like a weed-tipped fishing- rod, probing and attracting the unwary; and sometimes a shout does not function as a shout.
Lin-chi warned his disciples against the subtle tricks of the discursive mind. The attempt to understand is itself another kind of cognitive chain of thoughts, and intuitive illumination cannot be secured by any cognitive process. "Does anyone have a question?" Lin-chi once asked. "If so, let him ask it now. But the instant you open your mouth, you are already way off." According to the Recorded Sayings of Lin-chi, he elaborated his meaning in a short discourse to his monks:
This was Lin-chi's fourfold analysis of the interchangeability of subject and object.
Reality, Lin-chi taught, is neither subjective nor objective, but chains of thoughts attempt to make it one or the other. The real man, however – the true or universal mind – is beyond both. When one is engrossed in the beauty of Nature or the words in a book, subjectivity is absorbed in the objective world. When a poet thinks out a poem or an artist creates a painting, objectivity is lost in total subjectivity. In deep meditation, when the senses are inoperative, both subjectivity and objectivity are lost. But when both objectivity and subjectivity come and go freely – self- awareness mingling with the conditions of the world – one experiences the world of common daily life. This is closest to intuitive illumination, for that which is enlightened manifests now as one, now as the other.
Philosophically, these possibilities point to the "mind-reality", in Lin-chi's phrase, which is universal and omnipresent. Each human being is that mind-reality in an individual locus. The paradox of human nature and the reason why all words can hide the truth as much as reveal it is that a human being is both the universal mind-reality and the concrete person simultaneously. To realize that one is that which sees, that which is seen, the nothingness of pure seeing without 'I' or what is seen, and the whole process of an 'I' seeing the world is to gain illumination. Mind-reality is not a metaphysical doctrine, an article of faith or a goal to be attained: it is a fact in Nature and in Man. Indeed, it is the Fact. There is nothing else real. To understand it is to experience it, and to experience it is to live it. One cannot think about it, for doing so objectifies what is not objective. Nor can one simply deny it, for that subjectivizes what is not subjective. Rather, one has simply to be what one is.
The universal Buddha who is the intelligent force in Nature and in history, Gautama Buddha who taught men truth, and the individual human being are entirely one and the same. This is why Lin-chi uttered shocking statements like, "Whatever you encounter, either within or without, slay it at once: on meeting Buddha, slay Buddha, on meeting the patriarch, slay the patriarch." The true Man, the "man of no rank" or the mind-reality, is lost through conditionality and qualification as soon as one thinks about him. To give Buddha form, even more to associate Buddha with an image, is to impose conditionality – rank – on the mind-reality, to limit it and confine it within the shrunken thought of discursive consciousness. In shifting the focus of spiritual aspiration from mind-only to the man of no rank, Lin-chi did not alter the fundamental aim and purpose of buddhavachana, but rather took it from the remote realm of abstraction and centred it in each human being. That true man who carries no rank is one's Buddha nature, the universal mind-reality, the purity of simple intuition. Lin-chi did not want the possibility of intuitive insight to be degraded into just another link in the chain of discursive thought, and so his doctrine and his method constituted a single meta physical and psychological unity. He lived as he taught, an awesome blend of confidence and negation, treading the razor- edged path of fidelity to the most fundamental truth.