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Huángbò Xīyùn (simplified Chinese: 黄檗希运 traditional: 黄檗希運 Wade-Giles: Huang-po Hsi-yün; ) (died 850) was an influential Chinesemarker master of Zen Buddhism. He was born in Fujianmarker, Chinamarker in the Tang Dynasty. Huángbò was a disciple of Baizhang Huaihai (720-840) and the teacher of Linji Yixuan (died 866) (Wade-Giles: Lin-chi I-hsüan; Japanese: Rinzai Gigen).


Very little about Huángbò ‘s life is known for certain as, unlike other Transmission of the Lamp literature, there is no biographical information included with Huángbò ‘s collection of sayings and sermons, the Ch’uan-hsin Fa-yao (Essential of Mind Transmission) and the Wan-ling Lu (Record of Wan-ling: Japanese: Enryōroku). The records indicated that Huángbò was extraordinarily tall

Huángbò began his monastic life on Mt. Huangbo in Fuzhou (Fu-chien) province, receiving the Buddhist name Hsi-yun. As was the custom of the times, he traveled around seeking instructions from various Chan masters. He visited Mt. Tiantai and sought teachings from the National Teacher Nanyang Huizhong. (Wade-Giles: Nan-yang Hui-chung; Japanese: Nan’yō Echū) At some point he may also have studied under Nanquan Puyuan (748-835) (Wade-Giles: Nan-ch’üan P’u-yüan; Japanese: Nansen Fugan), a student of Mazu Daoyi (Wade-Giles: Ma-tsu Tao-i; Japanese: Baso Dōitsu) (709-788)

However, Huángbò’s main teacher was Baizhang Huaihai (Wade-Giles: Pai-chang Huai-hai; Japanese: Hyakujo Ekai), another Mazu student, and it was from Baizhang that Huángbò received Dharma transmission. According to the Yuanwu Keqin (圜悟克勤 Wade-Giles: Yuan Wu K’e Ch’in) (1062-1135) commentary in The Blue Cliff Record (Wade-Giles: Pi Yen Lu; Japanese: Hekiganroku) when Huángbò first met Baizhang, Baizhang exclaimed, “Magnificent! Imposing! Where have you come from?” Huángbò replied, “Magnificent and imposing, I’ve come from the mountains.”

In 842, a prominent government official in Kiangsi province, Pei Xiangguo (Wade-Giles: P’ei Hsiu) (787 or 797-860), invited Huángbò to take up residence at Lung-hsing Monastery. Pei Xiangguo was an ardent student of Chan and received teachings from Huángbò, eventually building a monastery for Huángbò around 846, which the master named Huang-po after the mountain where he had been a novice monk. Before Huángbò died, he named thirteen successors, the most prominent of which was Linji Yixuan. He was given the posthumous title (probably under the urging of Pei Xiangguo who became chief minister of the central government in 853) of “Chan Master Without Limits” (Tuan Chi Ch’an Shih).


What is known of Huángbò’s teachings comes from two texts, the Ch’uan-hsin Fa-yao (Essential of Mind Transmission) and the Wan-ling Lu (Record of Wan-ling: Japanese: Enryōroku) written by Huángbò’s student, Pei Xiangguo. These two texts are unique in early Chan literature as they can be precisely dated by Pei Xiangguo who wrote the preface on October 8, 857. They are also the first full-length Zen texts translated in English. Pei Xiangguo compiled the teachings from his own notes and sent the manuscript to the senior monks on Mount Huangbo for further editing and emendation. The “official” version of the Huángbò literature was published as part of the Ching-te ch’üan-teng lu (Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (Compiled during the) Ching-te (Period)) in 1004. The record of Huángbò is more or less equally split between sermons by the master and question and answer dialogues between the master and his disciples and lay people.

Although Huángbò often railed against traditional Buddhist textual practices, pointing to the necessity of direct experience over sutra study, his record shows that he was familiar with a wide selection of Buddhist doctrines and texts, including the Diamond Sutra, the Vimalakīrti Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. Huángbò’s disdain for written texts is exemplified by the story of Pei Xiangguo presenting Huángbò with a text he had written on his understanding of Chan. Huángbò placed the text down without looking at and after a long pause asked, “Do you understand?” Pei replied, “I don’t understand.” Huángbò said, “If it can be understood in this manner, then it isn’t the true teaching. If it can be seen in paper and ink, then it’s not the essence of our order.” Huángbò was also noted for the manner of his teaching, incorporating the hitting and shouting pioneered by Mazu. There are a number of instances in the record of Huángbò slapping students. The Blue Cliff Record tells the story of the future emperor of China, hiding in the Chan community as a novice monk, receiving slaps from Huángbò for questioning why Huángbò was bowing to an image of the Buddha. The most famous instance was when Linji was directed by the head monk, Muzhou Daoming, to question Huángbò on the meaning of Buddhism after he (Linji) had been practicing in Huángbò’s monastery for three years without an interview. Three times Linji went to Huángbò and three times the only answer he got was a slap.

Huángbò’s teaching centered on the concept of “mind” (Chinese: hsin), a central issue for Buddhism in China for the previous two centuries or more. He taught that mind cannot be sought by the mind and one of his most important sayings was “mind is the Buddha”. He said: “All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists. …The One Mind alone is the Buddha, and there is no distinction between the Buddha and sentient beings…” He also said: “…to awaken suddenly to the fact that your own Mind is the Buddha, that there is nothing to be attained or a single action to be performed---this is the Supreme Way.”

If, as Huángbò taught, all is Buddha-mind, then all actions would reflect the Buddha, be actions of a Buddha. Huángbò’s teaching on this reflected the Indian concept of the tathāgatagarbha, the idea that within all beings is the nature of the Buddha. Therefore, Huángbò taught that seeking the Buddha was futile as the Buddha resided within: “If you know positively that all sentient beings already one with Bodhi [enlightenment, Supreme Wisdom], you will cease thinking of Bodhi as something to be attained” Huángbò was adamant that any form of “seeking” was not only useless, but obstructed clarity: “…sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally for Buddhahood. By their very seeking they lose it.” Furthermore, he claimed that “’Studying the Way’ is just a figure of speech….In fact, the Way is not something which can be studied. …You must not allow this name [the Way] to lead you into forming a mental concept of a road.” ”…any search is doomed to failure”

What Huángbò knew was that students of Chan often became attached to “seeking” enlightenment and he constantly warned against this (and all attachment) as an obstruction to enlightenment: “If you students of the Way wish to become Buddhas, you need study no doctrines whatever, but learn only how to avoid seeking for and attaching yourselves to anything.”

He also firmly rejected all dualism, especially between the “ordinary” and “enlightened” states: “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. …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.”

While Huángbò was an uncompromising and somewhat fearsome Chan teacher, he understood the nature of fear in students when they heard the doctrine of emptiness and the Void: “Those who hasten towards it [the Void] dare not enter, fearing to hurtle down through the void with nothing to cling to or to stay their fall. So they look to the brink and retreat.” He taught that ‘no activity’ was the gateway of his Dharma but that “all who reach this gate fear to enter.” To overcome this fear, one “must enter it with the suddenness of a knife-thrust”

References & Further Readings

Blofeld, John, 1958, The Zen Teachings of Huang Po On the Transmission of Mind, Grove Press, New York, ISBN 0-8021-5092-6

Chang Chung-yuan, 1971, Original Teachings of Ch’an Buddhism, Vintage Books, ISBN0-394-71333-8

Cleary, Thomas & Cleary, J.C., 1992, The Blue Cliff Record, translated by, Shambhala Publications, Boston, ISBN 0-87773-622-7

Dumoulin, Heinrich (1994, 1998) Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume I, India and China, Simon & Schuster and Prentice Hall International ISBN 0 02 897109 4

Foster, Nelson & Shoemaker, Jack (eds), 1996, The Roaring Stream: a new Zen reader, The Ecco Press, Hopewell, ISBN 0-88001-344-3

Wright, Dale S., 2004, The Huang-po Literature, in The Zen Canon: Understanding the Classic Zen Texts, Dale Wright & Steven Heine, eds., Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195150678

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