A Taste of Zen: Mazu Daoyi
Mazu Daoyi, “Daji”
© 2011 Andrew Ferguson, Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings.
Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications
Mazu Daoyi (709–88) was a student of Nanyue Huairang. After Huineng, Mazu is the most famous of the ancient Chinese Zen masters. Two of the traditionally acknowledged major schools of Zen trace their lineage through this renowned Zen ancient. From his home in Sichuan Province, Mazu made his way to Zhongqing, where he initially studied under a second-generation teacher of Daman Hongren (the Fifth Ancestor). There he received ordination as a Buddhist monk. Later, he settled on Mt. Heng, where he met Nanyue Huairang. After ten years of study with Nanyue, he received Dharma transmission, then proceeded to travel as a yunshui the length and breadth of China, perfecting his understanding of the Buddha way. Eventually he settled at Zhongling (now Nanchang City), where students from every quarter came to study with him.
Mazu’s Zen lineage is remembered as the Hongzhou Zen school. Located in what is now Jiangxi Province, it was the dominant Zen school of the later Tang dynasty (late ninth and early tenth centuries). Mazu was the first Zen teacher acknowledged to use the staff to jolt his students into awakening. The strident style of his Hongzhou school foreshadowed the uncompromising training methods of his famous Zen descendant, Linji Yixuan.
Unlike some other Zen masters of his time, Mazu did not leave an extensive written record of his teachings. Instead, we know of him largely from imaginative legends that reflect the awesome sense of presence that he conveyed.
Like the great Zen masters of all ages, Mazu emphasized the immediacy of Zen enlightenment. He emphasized the teaching that “mind is Buddha” and “This place is itself true thusness.” Mazu’s “sudden” approach moved the Chinese spiritual scales back toward “pointing directly at mind,” the essential teaching of Bodhidharma’s Zen.
The acclaimed greatness of a Zen master does not arise simply from his or her message. Equally important is the awesome and bone-chilling presence that such masters demonstrate. This tangible sense of presence reveals an astonishing freedom. Zen students, observing such masters, naturally aspire to gain the remarkable composure, effortless grace, and uncluttered vision that they embody. Later generations gain a sense of what these ancients were like partly through their words, but more intimately through their legends.
The Wudeng Huiyuan provides the following account of Mazu’s life and teaching.
Zen master Mazu Daoyi of Jiangxi was from Shifang in Hanzhou [about forty kilometers north of the modern city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province]. His surname was Ma. He entered Luohan Temple in his home district. His appearance was most unusual. He strode like an ox and glared like a tiger. His extended tongue covered his nose. On the soles of his feet his veins formed two circles. As a youth he received tonsure under a monk named Tang in Zizhou. He was fully ordained under Vinaya master Yuan in Yu Province.
During the Kai Yuan era [713–41] Mazu met Master Nanyue Huairang while practicing Zen meditation on Mt. Heng. Six others also studied with Nanyue but only Mazu received the secret mind seal. Nanyue Huairang and his student Mazu Daoyi can be compared with Qingyuan Xingsi and his student Shitou Xiqian. Though they came from the same source, they diverged into two branches. The brilliance of ancient Zen arose through these two masters. Liu Ke said, “In Jiangxi is Master Daji. In Hunan is Master Shitou. Anyone traversing the country seeking a teacher who doesn’t see these two will remain ignorant.”
The record of Prajnadhara of India made a prediction about Bodhidharma, saying, “Although the great land of China is vast, there are no roads where my descendants won’t travel. The phoenix, with a single grain, nourishes the saints and monks in the ten directions.”
The Sixth Ancestor [also citing an ancient prediction by Prajnadhara] said to Nanyue, “Hereafter, from the area to which you will go, a horse will come forth and trample everyone in the world to death.”
Later, the Dharma of Nanyue’s spiritual heir was spread across the world. People of that time called him Master Ma.
From Buddha Trace Mountain in Jianyang, Mazu moved to Linchuan. He then moved to Nankang at Gonggong Mountain. In the middle of the Dali era [766–79], Mazu lived at the Kaiyuan Temple in Zhongling. During that time the high official Lu Sigong heard of Mazu’s reputation, and personally came to receive instruction. Because of this, students from the four quarters gathered like clouds beneath Mazu’s seat.
One day Mazu addressed the congregation, saying, “All of you here! Believe that your own mind is Buddha. This very mind is buddha mind. When Bodhidharma came from India to China he transmitted the supreme vehicle teaching of one mind, allowing people like you to attain awakening. Moreover he brought with him the text of the Lankavatara Sutra, using it as the seal of the mind-ground of sentient beings. He feared that your views would be inverted, and you wouldn’t believe in the teaching of this mind that each and every one of you possesses. Therefore [Bodhidharma brought] the Lankavatara Sutra, which offers the Buddha’s words that mind is the essence—and that there is no gate by which to enter Dharma. You who seek Dharma should seek nothing. Apart from mind there is no other Buddha. Apart from Buddha there is no other mind. Do not grasp what is good nor reject what is bad. Don’t lean toward either purity or pollution. Arrive at the empty nature of transgressions; that nothing is attained through continuous thoughts; and that because there is no self-nature the three worlds are only mind. The myriad forms of the entire universe are the seal of the single Dharma. Whatever forms are seen are but the perception of mind. But mind is not independently existent. It is co-dependent with form. You should speak appropriately about the affairs of your own life, for each matter you encounter constitutes the meaning of your existence, and your actions are without hindrance. The fruit of the bodhisattva way is just thus, born of mind, taking names to be forms. Because of the knowledge of the emptiness of forms, birth is nonbirth. Comprehending this, one acts in the fashion of one’s time, just wearing clothes, eating food, constantly upholding the practices of a bodhisattva, and passing time according to circumstances. If one practices in this manner is there anything more to be done?
“To receive my teaching, listen to this verse:
The mind-ground responds to conditions.
Bodhi is only peace.
When there is no obstruction in worldly affairs or principles,
Then birth is nonbirth.”
A monk asked, “Master, why do you say that mind is Buddha?”
Mazu said, “To stop babies from crying.”
The monk said, “What do you say when they stop crying?”
Mazu said, “No mind, no Buddha.”
The monk asked, “Without using either of these teachings, how would you instruct someone?”
Mazu said, “I would say to him that it’s not a thing.”
The monk asked, “If suddenly someone who was in the midst of it came to you, then what would you do?”
Mazu said, “I would teach him to experience the great way.”
A monk asked, “What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?”
Mazu said, “What is the meaning of this moment?”
Layman Pang asked, “Would the master please give your esteemed view about the clear-eyed ancestors?”
Mazu looked down.
Layman Pang said, “Other teachers can’t play the lute. Only the master does it so sublimely.”
Mazu then looked up. Layman Pang bowed. Mazu then returned to the abbot’s room. Layman Pang followed him, saying, “Just now something skillful turned awkward.”
Layman Pang also asked, “Although water has no muscle or bone, it supports ten-thousand-pound ships. What is the principle this displays?”
Mazu said, “Here there is neither water nor boat. How can you speak of muscle and bone?”
One evening, the monks Xitang, Baizhang, and Nanquan were viewing the moon with Master Mazu.
The master asked them, “At just this moment, what is it?”
Xitang said, “Perfect support.”
Baizhang said, “Perfect practice.”
Nanquan shook his sleeves and walked away.
Mazu said, “A sutra enters the Buddhist canon. Zen returns to the sea.
Only Nanquan has gone beyond things.”
Baizhang asked, “What is the essential import of the school?”
Mazu said, “It’s just the place where you let go of your body and life.”
Mazu asked Baizhang, “What teaching do you offer people?”
Baizhang held his whisk up straight.
Mazu said, “Just this? Nothing more?”
Baizhang threw down the whisk.
A monk asked, “How can one gain accordance with the Way?”
Master Mazu said, “I’ve never gained accordance with it.”
The monk asked, “What is the essential meaning of Zen?”
Mazu struck him and said, “If I didn’t hit you, I’d be laughed at from every direction.”
The young teacher Danyuan returned from a pilgrimage. He drew a circle in front of Master Mazu, stepped inside it, bowed, and stood there.
Master Mazu said, “So, you don’t want to become a buddha?”
Danyuan said, “I can’t deceive you.”
Master Mazu said, “I’m not like you.”
Danyuan was silent.
When Deng Yinfeng was taking his leave, Master Mazu said to him, “Where are you going?”
Yinfeng said, “To Shitou’s.”
Mazu said, “Shitou’s road is slippery.”
Yinfeng said, “I’ll carry a wooden staff with me. When I encounter such places I’ll be ready.”
Then he went off.
Upon arriving at Shitou’s, he circled the meditation bench, loudly struck his staff on the floor, and asked, “What is the essential doctrine?”
Shitou said, “Blue heavens! Blue heavens!”
Yinfeng didn’t speak, but returned and reported this to Master Mazu.
Master Mazu said, “Go there and ask him again. Wait for his answer, then make two roaring sounds.”
Yinfeng again went to Shitou and asked the question as before. Shitou made two roaring sounds. Yinfeng again didn’t speak. He returned and reported this to Master Ma.
The master said, “Like I told you, ‘Shitou’s road is slippery.’”
A monk drew four lines on the ground in front of the master. The top line was long and the three underneath were short. He said, “It can’t be said that the one on top is long and the three underneath are short. Leaving the four descriptions that use these words aside, how does the master describe them?”
Master Ma then drew a line on the ground and said, “Without speaking of long and short, I’ve answered you.” (When National Teacher Nanyang Huizhong heard of this incident, he said, “Why didn’t he ask this old monk?”)
Master Ma asked the monk, “Professor, what teaching do you offer?”
The scholar monk said, “I lecture upon more than twenty volumes of scripture.”
Master Ma said, “Are you a young lion?”
The scholar monk said, “I can’t so presume.”
Master Ma made a roaring noise.
The scholar monk said, “This is a teaching.”
Master Ma said, “What teaching is it?”
The scholar monk said, “The teaching of the lion leaving its den.”
Master Ma remained silent.
The scholar monk said, “This also is a teaching.”
Master Ma said, “What teaching is it?”
The scholar monk said, “The teaching of the lion in its den.”
Master Ma said, “Neither going nor coming, what teaching is it?”
The scholar monk didn’t answer.
Baizhang said in his behalf, ”Do you see?”
The scholar monk then said goodbye and started to leave.
Master Ma called to him, “Professor!”
The scholar turned his head.
Master Ma said, “What is it?”
The scholar again didn’t answer.
Master Ma said, “This dull-witted professor!”
Magistrate Lian of Hongzhou asked, “Should one drink wine and eat meat or not?”
Master Ma said, “If you consume wine and meat, it is your prosperity. If you don’t consume wine and meat, it is your good fortune.”
The master had one hundred thirty-nine disciples, each becoming a spiritual master in a different place, where each of them ceaselessly conveyed the teaching. In the first month [of the year 788], the master climbed Shimen Mountain in Jianchang. There, as he was walking in the woods, he saw a flat spot in a cave and said to his attendant, “This ruined old body of mine will return to the ground next month.”
These words came to pass. He subsequently became ill.
The temple director asked him, “How has the master’s honored condition
Master Ma said, “Sun-faced buddha. Moon-faced buddha.”
On the first day of the second lunar month, the master bathed, sat in a cross-legged position, and passed away. During the Yuan He era [806–20] he received the posthumous name Daji [“Great Stillness”]. His stupa is named “Majestic and Imposing.”
© 2011 Andrew Ferguson, Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc.,