Why are Ananda, Vasubandhu, Asvaghosa and Nagarjuna included among the Patriarchs of Seon?
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If you look closely at the Lineage of Dharma Transmission of the Seon school, one peculiarity catches the eye. From Ananda, to Vasubandhu, Asvaghosa and Nagarjuna, the Seon lineage includes a number of persons who seem incongruent with the image of the majority of Seon patriarchs.
Are they included as patriarchs without regard to their own intentions? If they were to be reborn now and saw the records of Dharma Transmission, I really wonder how they would react. Would they be satisfied, nodding their heads in agreement? Or would they frown and simply ignore it? Perhaps if they had left home with the intention of becoming Seon monks it would be the former; if not, then the latter.
In the chapter on Mahakasyapa in the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall, Ananda’s distress at being barred from the First Council is described: “I served the Buddha with utmost sincerity, never breaking the precepts, so why haven’t I attained enlightenment?” He couldn’t understand, since more than anyone, he had a faithful mind, and was confident that he lived correctly, meticulously acting in accord with the rules of discipline.
As he wandered through the whole night, he asked himself over and over again, “Why? Why? Why?” By dawn he was exhausted, and went to lie down. The very moment before his head touched the wooden pillow, he attained the state of enlightenment. With joy, he returned directly to the Bimbila cave where the council was being held. He knocked at the door, and then entered the room through the keyhole. The question “why?” became a seed of doubt which grew into a single night of courageous determination, so that finally he was able to attain enlightenment the moment he laid his head on the pillow.
In other accounts, it is written that Ananda, in a state of vexation at having been expelled from the Council, stood on one foot at the edge of a cliff, and through this courageous determination, finally attained enlightenment.
Regardless of which story is true, both describe Ananda as having attained enlightenment through Seon-like practice.
Asvaghosa, when depicted in exchanges with his teacher Punyayasas, also takes on the appearance of a Seon Master:
“What is Buddha?”
“You wish to know the Buddha, but he who now does not know is the Buddha”
A distinguishing feature of the Seon school’s Theory of Western Patriarchs (서천조통설) is that the inclusion of masters of Indian Mahayana schools, such as Asvaghosa, Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna in the lineage of Seon patriarchs (12th, 14th and 21st patriarchs, respectively) is a demonstration of its integration of the former Buddhist sects into the Seon school. In other words, through Seon practice, all the forms of Buddhism can be synthesized.
Even now, senior monks who have recently passed away are conferred the title “Seon Master” or “Great Seon Master”. Among living monks, regardless of position all are referred to by the title “Head Seat” (Sino-Korean, sujwa 首座,) a form of address meant to share respect with the more junior members of the community. The term Sujwa appears to be derived from the term Suja (修者), itself an abbreviation of Suseonja (修禪者) which means, “One who cultivates Seon”. Actually, the term Sujwa originally designated the monk in a monastery with the most seniority next to the Seon master. Regardless, the term Sujwa at has replaced Suja in common use as a title referring to all monks.
It is not known exactly when this practice of referring to all Seon monks as Sujwa began. Yet from the point of view of the Seon school, even if a monk lives in a small temple in the city, that place becomes a Seon center and therefore the term has not been misused. At any rate, it seems this kind of Seon sentiment spreads to all those who enter the Seon school, and is perhaps a kind of karma.
This concludes the introductory remarks. From here on, I would like to present some interesting stories about Seon monks through which we can see the inseparability of every day life and Seon practice. I hope that these anecdotes will present some wisdom to help enlighten us in the present day.