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The Buddha, the first patriarch of the Seon School

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Writer admin Date23 Mar 2006 Read11,916 Comment0


One of the first great challenges for Seon historians that the new Seon School faced when it was first introduced was how to put the Buddha into the hall. The writers of the Records of the Transmission of the Lamp1 wrestled long and hard with this problem. Why did they put so much effort into it?

When the Seon School made its first appearance in China, the Hua-yen School (Avatamsaka School, Flower Garland School), the Tien-tai School, the Lu-tsung School (Vinaya School), the Fa-shiang School (Marks of Existence School) and other Buddhist orders enjoyed great success. In order for the Seon School to survive in this situation, it needed to manifest its legitimacy. To this end it required a method by which to proclaim that no other than Seon School was the true and loyal “son” of the Buddha’s teaching and for that, it needed solid evidence. The first method employed was the lineage tree which shows 33 Seon masters from the Buddha to Hui-neng2 , including Mahakasyapa and Bodhidharma. Thus the Buddha, himself, became the first patriarch of the Seon School.

In actual fact there is evidence to support this claim. During his life, the Buddha showed some Seon characteristics. The story about him holding up a flower and smiling (yeomwhamiso, in Korean)3 to the assembly provided the basis for Seon philosophy – “a direct transmission from mind to mind, a special transmission outside the orthodox teaching.” Thereafter, the room of the Seon patriarch in Korea was named “yeomwhasil” after this story. As we can see from this, the starting point of the Seon School is that the Buddha was a Seon master. Let’s take a look at another story.

A Brahmin paid a visit to the Buddha and brought a flower as an offering. The Buddha said to him.
“Let go of it.”
The Brahmin put the flower in his right hand into his left hand. The Buddha repeated.
“Let go of it.”
The Brahmin dropped the flower. The Buddha said again.
“Let go of it.”
The exasperated Brahmin cried out.
“I am empty handed now. There is nothing that I should let go of.”
The Buddha said to him.
“I did not mean the flower. I told you to let go of the Six Dusts, the Six Sense-faculties, and the Six kinds of Sense Consciousness4 all together. Then, when you have nothing to let go of anymore, you will be free of birth and death.”
At this, the Brahmin attained enlightenment on the spot.
Let me change some parts of this story; putting the Seon patriarch in the place of the Buddha, a mendicant in the place of the Brahmin, and adopting a Chinese background. Now can you see the real picture of a Seon dialogue?

  1. The basic reference for biographical information and teachings of Tang Dynasty Seon monks compiled by Tao-Yuan and published in 1004.
  2. Huineng (638-713); the Sixth Patriarch. His teachings were collected in a work known as the Platform Sutra.
  3. The story is: One day the Buddha held up a flower to the assembly and no-one knew why. Only one monk, Mahakashyapa knew the reason and smiled. This story is a Seon demonstration which refers to the wordless transmission of the Buddha Dharma from Sakyamuni Buddha to his student Mahakasyapa, from mind to mind.
  4. The Six dusts; sight, sound, smell, taste, body and idea;
    the Six sense-faculties: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind;
    the Six kinds of sense consciousness: eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, and mind consciousness.

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