Zen Master Zongmi is a fascinating person. He lived from 780 to 840; almost right at the end of the classical development period of Tang Dynasty Chinese Zen. He was born about 10 years before Master Baso died.
Zongmi produced a detailed commentary on the seven Zen schools that were in existence in his time, their practices and perspectives.
He traced his lineage from Shen-hui who established The Southern School, but attributed that to his teacher Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch.
Both are shadowy figures. Hui-neng, because although there was a Hui-neng historically, we know hardly anything about him. The ‘legend’ of Hui-neng, on the other hand, is almost entirely fictitious.
Shen-hui is shadowy because, whilst very influential, he doesn’t appear in the subsequent lineage charts, possibly because of his schismatic qualities, possible because the dominant strain of Zen from the Ninth century onward, into the Song Dynasty, was Baso’s Hongzhou School (or rather, a peculiar later reconstruction of it, attributed – wrongly – to Rinzai), which traced its ancestry through Nangaku, another student of Hui-neng.
However, Zongmi’s interest was primarily in his own School (usually known as the Southern School, which he called Heze), and the other main schools: the Hongzhou School, the Ox-Head School and the Northern School.
He describes the differences between these Schools using the simile of a bright jewel, which he borrows from The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment.
In this simile there’s a bright jewel called the Wishing Jewel. Next to this bright jewel is placed a black object symbolizing ignorance. The effect of that black object is to make the jewel appear black.
He details the doctrinal differences between the Schools by how each School would describe this.
He describes the Northern School as saying that the intrinsic nature of the jewel is bright but that somehow it’s covered over by this blackness. We need to wipe the blackness off before the brightness can be revealed. That’s an unfair characterisation of the Northern School’s teaching (‘Northern’ is the term coined by Shen-hui; the School called itself The East Mountain School) which was nothing like that, but it fitted into the sectarianism fostered by Shen-hui.
The Ox-Head School is the School which almost certainly wrote the Platform Sutra, and which adhered most closely to Nagarjuna’s teachings of emptiness. Zongmi characterises them as saying, “so far as the jewel’s concerned, the blackness doesn’t exist because nothing – not the blackness, not the jewel, not the brightness – really exists, because everything is empty (ie interdependent).”
Zongmi characterises Hongzhou as saying the blackness is the jewel and apart from the blackness, there is no jewel, because they fail to see the original brightness of the jewel.
Zongmi was almost certainly not attacking Baso himself, for whom he had great respect. He was aiming at some of Baso’s successors who, I imagine, he felt neglected the centrality of practice.
He characterises his own School as saying that the brightness of the Jewel (Buddha nature) is real but that the blackness (delusion) isn’t real. The blackness is simply an aspect of the brightness. All particular phenomena are simply a function of the Jewel’s brightness.
Zongmi was also very interesting in having an unusual model of practice. His model is sudden awakening followed by gradual practice. The sudden awakening is a kind of visceral recognition of the truths of impermanence, interdependence, no-self, non duality and so on. Some kind of rudimentary, urgent understanding of that, not simply as a kind of belief; but as something felt, followed by and grounding gradual practice. The function of practice wasn’t to ‘gain’ enlightenment, as everything is originally enlightened, but to attend to the karmic afflictions which have caused these illusions of separation and self to be generated and maintained.
Reading Zongmi acts as a corrective to the picture of Zen constructed during the Song Dynasty and projected backwards, with the reformulation of the Tang Masters of Baso’s lineage as iconoclasts. His habit of explaining common metaphors used in the Zen of his time is extremely helpful. And his theoretical integration of Zen into wider Buddhism is useful in preventing us being trapped on Zen Island, swapping the same stories over and over.