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The Zen Teaching of Huang Po
On the Transmission of Mind

The first part of this selection is taken from John Blofeld’s introduction to his new rendering of this ninth-century Chinese Buddhist classic. [Selections included in Nancy Ross Wilson’s The World of Zen.]

All Buddhists take Gautama Buddha’s Enlightenment as their starting point and endeavor to attain to that transcendental knowledge that will bring them face to face with Reality, thereby delivering them from rebirth into the space-time realm forever. Zen followers go further. They are not content to pursue Enlightenment through aeons of varied existences inevitably bound up with pain and ignorance, approaching with infinite slowness the Supreme Experience which Christian mystics have described as “union with the God-head.” They believe in the possibility of attaining Full Enlightenment both here and now through determined efforts to rise beyond conceptual thought and to grasp that Intuitive Knowledge which is the central fact of Enlightenment. Furthermore, they insist that the experience is both sudden and complete. While the striving may require years, the reward manifests itself in a flash. But to attain this reward, the practice of virtue and dispassion is insufficient. It is necessary to rise above such relative concepts as good and evil, sought and found, Enlightenment and unenlightenment, and all the rest.

Huang Po To make this point clearer, let us consider some Christian ideas of God. God is regarded as the First Principle, uncaused and unbegat, which logically implies perfection; such a being cannot be discovered through the relativity of time and space. Then comes the concept of “God is good” which, as Christian mystics have pointed out, detracts from His perfection; for to be good implies not being evil – a limitation which inevitably destroys the unity and wholeness of these things, for He transcends them all. Again, the idea of God as the creator of the universe suggests a dualism, a distinction between creator and created. This, if valid, places God on a lower level than perfection, for there can be neither unity nor wholeness where A excludes B or B excludes A.

Zen followers (who have much in common with mystics of other faiths) do not use the term “God,” being wary of its dualistic and anthropomorphic implications. They prefer to talk of “the Absolute” or “the One Mind,” for which they employ many synonyms according to the aspect to be emphasized in relation to something finite. Thus, the word “Buddha” is used as a synonym for the Absolute as well as in the sense of Gautama, the Enlightened One, for it is held that the two are identical. A Buddha’s Enlightenment denotes an intuitive realization of his unity with the Absolute from which, after the death of his body, nothing remains to divide him even in appearance. Of the Absolute nothing whatever can be postulated; to say that it exists excludes non-existence; to say that it does not exist excludes existence. Furthermore, Zen followers hold that the Absolute, or union with the Absolute, is not something to be attained; one does not ENTER Nirvana, for entrance to a place one has never left is impossible. The experience commonly called “entering Nirvana” is, in fact, an intuitive realization of that Self-nature which is the true Nature of all things. The Absolute, or Reality, is regarded as having for sentient beings two aspects. The only aspect perceptible to the unenlightened is the one in which individual phenomena have a separate though purely transitory existence within the limits of space-time. The other aspect is spaceless and timeless; moreover all opposites, all distinctions and “entities” of every kind, are here seen to be One. Yet neither is this second aspect, alone, the highest fruit of Enlightenment, as many contemplatives suppose. It is only when both aspects are conceived and reconciled that the beholder may be regarded as truly Enlightened. Yet, from that moment, he ceases to be the beholder, for he is conscious of no division between beholding and beheld. This leads to further paradoxes, unless the use of words is abandoned altogether. It is incorrect to employ such mystical terminology as “I dwell in the Absolute,” “The Absolute dwells in me,” or “I am penetrated by the Absolute,” etc.; for, when space is transcended, the concepts of whole and part are no longer valid; the part is the whole – I AM the Absolute, except that I am no longer “I.” What I behold then is my real Self, which is the true nature of all things; see-er and seen are one and the same, yet there is no seeing, just as the eye cannot behold itself.

The single aim of the true Zen follower is so to train his mind that all thought processes based on the dualism inseparable from “ordinary” life are transcended, their place being taken by that Intuitive Knowledge which, for the first time, reveals to a man what he really is. If All is One, then knowledge of a being’s true self-nature – his original Self – is equally a knowledge of all-nature, the nature of everything in the universe. Those who have actually achieved this tremendous experience, whether as Christians, Buddhists or members of other faiths, are agreed as to the impossibility of communicating it in words. They may employ words to point the way to others, but, until the latter have achieved the experience for themselves, they can have but the merest glimmer of the truth – a poor intellectual concept of something lying infinitely beyond the highest point ever reached by the human intellect.

It will now be clear that Zen Masters do not employ paradoxes from a love of cheap mystification, though they do occasionally make humorous use of them when humor seems needed. Usually, it is the utter impossibility of describing the Supreme Experience which explains the paradoxical nature of their speech. To affirm or deny is to limit; to limit is to shut out the light of truth; but, as words of some sort must be used in order to set disciples on to the right path, there naturally arises a series of paradoxes – sometimes of paradox within paradox within paradox.

It should perhaps be added that Huang Po’s frequent criticisms of those Buddhists who follow the more conventional path, cultivating knowledge, good works and a compassionate heart through successive stages of existence, are not intended to call into question the value to humanity of such excellent practices. As a Buddhist, Huang Po must certainly have regarded these things as necessary for our proper conduct in daily life; indeed, we are told by P’ei Hsiu [who recorded the teachings] that his way of life was exalted; but he was concerned lest concepts such as virtue should lead people into dualism, and lest they should hold Enlightenment to be a gradual process attainable by other means than intuitive insight.

Huang Po’s Use of the Term “The One Mind”

The text indicates that Huang Po was not entirely satisfied with his choice of the word “Mind” to symbolize the inexpressible Reality beyond the reach of conceptual thought, for he more than once explains that the One Mind is not really MIND at all. But he had to use some term or other, and “Mind” had not often been used by his predecessors. As Mind conveys intangibility, it no doubt seemed to him a good choice, especially as the use of this term helps to make it clear that the part of a man usually regarded as an individual entity inhabiting his body is, in fact, not his property at all, but common to him and to everybody and everything else. (It must be remembered that, in Chinese, “hsin” means not only “mind,” but “heart” and, in some senses at least, “spirit” or “soul” – in short, the so-called REAL man, the inhabitant of the body-house.) If we prefer to substitute the word “Absolute,” which Huang Po occasionally uses himself, we must take care not to read into the text any preconceived notions as to the nature of the Absolute. And, of course, “the One Mind” is no less misleading, unless we abandon all preconceived ideas, as Huang Po intended.

In an earlier translation of the first part of this book, I ventured to substitute “Universal Mind” for “the One Mind,” hoping that the meaning would be clearer. However, various critics objected to this, and I have come to see that my term is liable to a different misunderstanding; it is therefore no improvement on “the One Mind,” which at least has the merit of being a literal translation.


The book tells us very little about the practice of what, for want of a better translation, is often called meditation or contemplation. Unfortunately both these words are misleading as they imply some object of meditation or of contemplation; and, if objectlessness be stipulated, then they may well be taken to lead to a blank or sleeplike trance, which is not at all the goal of Zen. Huang Po seems to have assumed that his audience knew something about the practice – as most keen Buddhists do, of course. He gives few instructions as to how to “meditate,” but he does tell us what to avoid. If, conceiving of the phenomenal world as illusion, we try to shut it out, we make a false distinction between the “real” and the “unreal.” So we must not shut anything out, but try to reach the point where all distinctions are seen to be void, where nothing is seen as desirable or undesirable, existing or not existing. Yet this does not mean that we should make our minds blank, for then we should be no better than blocks of wood or lumps of stone; moreover, if we remained in this state, we should not be able to deal with the circumstances of daily life or be capable of observing the Zen precept” “When hungry, eat.” Rather, we must cultivate dispassion, realizing that none of the attractive or unattractive attributes of things have any absolute existence.

Enlightenment, when it comes, will come in a flash. There can be no gradual, no partial, Enlightenment. The highly trained and zealous adept may be said to have prepared himself for Enlightenment, but by no means can he be regarded as partially Enlightened - just as a drop of water may get hotter and hotter and then, suddenly, boil; at no stage is it partly boiling, and, until the very moment of boiling, no qualitative change has occurred. In effect, however, we may go through three stages – two of non-Enlightenment and one of Enlightenment. To the great majority of people, the moon is the moon and the trees are the trees. The next stage (not really higher than the first) is to perceive that moon and trees are not at all what they seem to be, since “all is the One Mind.” When this stage is achieved, we have the concept of a vast uniformity in which all distinctions are void; and, to some adepts, this concept may come as an actual perception, as “real” to them as the moon and the trees before. It is said that, when Enlightenment really comes, the moon is again very much the moon and the trees exactly trees; but with a difference, for the Enlightened man is capable of perceiving both unity and multiplicity without the least contradiction between them!

From: The Chun Chou Record of
the Zen Master Huang Po (Tuan Chi)

A collection of sermons and dialogues recorded by P’ei Hsiu while in the city of Chun Chou.

The Master said to me: All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists.  This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible.  It is not green nor yellow, and has neither form nor appearance.  It does not belong to the categories of things which exist or do not exist, nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old.  It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measure, names, traces and comparisons.  It is that which you see before you - begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error.  It is like the boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured.  The One Mind alone is the Buddha, and there is no distinction between the Buddha and sentient things, but that sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally for Buddhahood.  By their very seeking they lose it, for that is using the Buddha to seek for the Buddha and using mind to grasp Mind.  Even though they do their utmost for a full aeon, they will not be able to attain it.  They do not know that, if they put a stop to conceptual thought and forget their anxiety, the Buddha will appear before them, for this Mind is the Buddha and the Buddha is all living beings.  It is not the less for being manifested in ordinary beings, nor is it greater for being manifest in the Buddhas.


Q: From all you have just said, Mind is the Buddha; but it is not clear as to what sort of mind is meant by this “Mind which is the Buddha.”
A: How many minds have you got?
Q: But is the Buddha the ordinary mind or the Enlightened mind?
A: Where on earth do you keep your “ordinary mind” and your “Enlightened mind?”
Q: In the teaching of the Three Vehicles it is stated that there are both.  Why does Your Reverence deny it?
A: In the teaching of the Three Vehicles it is clearly explained that the ordinary and Enlightened minds are illusions.  You don’t understand.  All this clinging to the idea of things existing is to mistake vacuity for the truth.  How can such conceptions not be illusory?  Being illusory, they hide Mind from you.  If you would only rid yourselves of the concepts of ordinary and Enlightened, you would find that there is no other Buddha than the Buddha in your own Mind.  When Bodhidharma came from the West, he just pointed out that the substance of which all men are composed is the Buddha.  You people go on misunderstanding; you hold to concepts such as “ordinary” and “Enlightened,” directing your thoughts outwards where they gallop about like horses!  All this amounts to beclouding your own minds!  So I tell you Mind is the Buddha.  As soon as thought or sensation arises, you fall into dualism.  Beginningless time and the present moment are the same.  There is no this and no that.  To understand this truth is called complete and unexcelled Enlightenment.
Q: Upon what Doctrine (Dharma-principles) does Your Reverence base these words?
A: Why seek a doctrine?  As soon as you have a doctrine, you fall into dualistic thought.
Q: Just now you said that the beginningless past and the present are the same.  What do you mean by that?
A: It is just because of your SEEKING that you make a difference between them.  If you were to stop seeking, how could there be any difference between them?
Q: If they are not different, why do you employ separate terms for them?
A: If you hadn’t mentioned ordinary and Enlightened, who would have bothered to say such things?  Just as those categories have no real existence, so Mind is not really “mind.”  And, as both Mind and those categories are really illusions, wherever can you hope to find anything?


Q: Illusion can hide from us our own mind, but up to now you have not taught us how to get rid of illusion.
A: The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory.  Illusion is not something rooted in Reality; it exists because of your dualistic thinking.  If you will only cease to indulge in opposed concepts such as “ordinary” and “Enlightened,” illusion will cease of itself.  And then if you still want to destroy it wherever it may be, you will find that there is not a hairsbreadth left of anything on which to lay hold.  This is the meaning of: “I will let go with both hands, for then I shall certainly discover the Buddha in my mind.”
Q: If there is nothing on which to lay hold, how is the Dharma to be transmitted?
A: It is a transmission of Mind with Mind.
Q: If Mind is used for transmission, why do you say that Mind too does not exist?
A: Obtaining no Dharma whatever is called Mind transmission.  The understanding of this implies no Mind and no Dharma.
Q: If there is no Mind and no Dharma, what is meant by transmission?
A: You hear people speak of Mind transmission and then you talk of something to be received.  So Bodhidharma said:

The nature of the Mind when understood,
No human speech can compass or disclose.
Enlightenment is naught to be attained,
And he that gains it does not say he knows.

If I were to make this clear to you, I doubt if you could stand it.

From: The Wan Ling Record of
the Zen Master Huang Po (Tuan Chi)

A collection of dialogues, sermons and anecdotes recorded by P’ei Hsiu during his tenure of the prefecture of Wan Ling.

Q: If our own Mind is the Buddha, how did Bodhidharma transmit his doctrine when he came from India?
A: When he came from India, he transmitted only Mind-Buddha.  He just pointed to the truth that the minds of all of you have from the very first been identical with the Buddha, and in no way separate from each other.... Whoever has an instant understanding of this truth suddenly transcends the whole hierarchy of saints and adepts.... You have always been one with the Buddha, so do not pretend you can ATTAIN to this oneness by various practices.
Q: If that is so, what Dharma do all the Buddhas teach when they manifest themselves in the world?
A: When all the Buddhas manifest themselves in the world, they proclaim nothing but the One Mind.  Thus Gautama Buddha silently transmitted to Mahakasyapa the doctrine that the One Mind, which is the substance of all things, is co-extensive with the Void and fills the entire world of phenomena.  This is called the Law of All the Buddhas.  Discuss it as you may, how can you even hope to approach the truth through words?  Nor can it be perceived either subjectively or objectively.  So full understanding can come to you only through an inexpressible mystery.  The approach to it is called the Gateway of the Stillness beyond all Activity.  If you wish to understand, know that a sudden comprehension comes when the mind has been purged of all the clutter of conceptual and discriminatory thought-activity.  Those who seek the truth by means of intellect and learning only get further and further away from it.  Not till your thoughts cease all their branching here and there, not till you abandon all thoughts of seeking for something, not till your mind is motionless as wood or stone, will you be on the right road to the Gate.

[Translator’s footnote:] These words recall the admonitions of so many mystics – Buddhist, Christian, Hindu or Sufi – who have committed their experiences to words.  What Huang Po calls the total abandonment of hsin – mind, thought, perceptions, concepts and the rest – implies the utter surrender of self insisted on by Sufi and Christian mystics.  Indeed, in paragraph 28 he used the very words: “Let the self perish utterly.”  Such striking unanimity of expression by mystics widely separated in time and space can hardly be attributed to coincidence.  No several persons entirely unacquainted with one another could produce such closely similar accounts of purely imaginary journeys.  Hence one is led to suppose that what they describe is real.  This seems to have been Aldous Huxley’s view when he compiled that valuable work The Perennial Philosophy.

Book: The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind.

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