The Bukhan mountain range is not too far from South-Korea’s capital city, and cool enough to spend the summer. Bhukhan is furthermore known as the seat of the monk Seongga (or Seonga) who lived during the Tang dynasty of China, the era of emperor Gaozong. Seongga went to China and came back as a Línjì chan monk. (chan = zen, and línjì = rinzai in Japanese)
Part 3 of Korean Jogye Anthology describes Seongga’s monkhood and how he penned down his Seongga gwigam (his ‘guide to seon’ [chan/zen]). In this guide Seongga shows himself as a proponent of both “Patriarchal Teacher Seon” and “Ganhwa Seon”. The latter, Ganhwa Seon, is about what the West knows as koan, and what China and Korea know as huatou, respectively hwadu.
Seongga sunim (sunim = monastic) introduced this hwadu: “What is the single thing?” As many western zennists have scant knowledge of the Buddhist philosophy, this “What is the single thing?” came to be abbreviated to “What is it?” leaving “the single thing” out — and leaving thousands of zen-pupils in the woods. Nevertheless, this “single thing” is at the heart of the most important refutation as the historic Buddha had it. “The One” is in early Buddhist philosophy an unthinkable something.
We find the probably oldest and most historically “true” instance of the discussion around “The One [thing]” in the Pali canon of the Southern Buddhism, the Songs of the Elder Bhikkhuni (Théri-gāta. 5.9 ——; a bhikkhuni = a fully ordained Buddhist nun; a théri = an elderly nun with at least 12 years standing).
This occurred somewhere between the 6th and 5th Cent. aD, somewhere in Northern India. In this Théri-gāta we read the conversation between the bhikkhu (monk) Sariputta and the bhikkhuni Bhadda Kúndalakésa. Bhikkhu Sariputta asks: “What is the One”, and bhikkhuni Bhadda remains silent. Much later she will find the answer all by herself and will Awaken to the Truth of Buddhism.
Why did Bhadda remain silent? Some commentators state that she used to be a Jain nun before she came to the Buddhist sangha. But the mention that she was a Kúndalakésa, someone with dreadlocks, makes that hard to believe. The unclothed Naga sadhus in this part of the world have dreadlocks, but there never have been female naga sadhus. It is furthermore hard to conceive the naga sadhus as being hindu, let alone brahmin. This was and is a religious movement in and out of itself. There were and are Saiva ascetics; they wear dreadlocks. Saivists are devotees of the Hindu god Shiva who receives the name The One, as being one of the manifestations of the ultimate in Hinduïsm. Could there have been Saiva nuns, in those days? Possibly, possibly not.
Nevertheless Bhadda(1) could have been raised in this belief of The One, and in becoming a Buddhist nun she must have received the information that this precisely was what Buddha refuted. Hence, in conversation with bhikkhu Sariputta (the son [putta] of the woman Sari) she doesn’t dare to speak for fear of making a serious mistake — in the eyes of Buddhists, that is. Deïsms, in whatever shape or form they appear, think higly of The One.
Let’s assume that this conversation is the first instance where there is mention of The One, and that scribe-monks, shortly after Buddha’s demise, picked up on this theme and used it twice more, after which these two more instances became part of the early Pali canon. That is, it is highly likely that the conversation between the monk and the nun actually took place, but whether the next two instances in the Pali canon are historically true is less evident.
Whatever the case may be, the theme of The One returned once more in the form of a meeting between a Brahmin monk and a Buddhist bhikkhuni: “The One, what is it?” the monk asks. And she, according to the Pali canon: “Sabbé-sattá áhára thítika — all things subsist on food.”
We might say that this is one of the first huatou / hwadu / koan: What is … (nonsense question)? Answer: …. (nonsense in the eyes and ears of outsiders).
Nevertheless, this refutation of The One is not nonsense. It’s an ultimate truth in Buddhism: there is not such a thing as “a first instance”, a One as Creator/Destroyer, or a One “tout court”. Underlying all things are multiple causes and conditions. It never occurs that óne thing arises on the basis of óne prior thing or óne instance. Multiplicity is the answer, not a One.
Since this Buddhist concept of oneness, as the (non-)thing that precedes the dichotomy between the singular and the plural, which therefore is beyond words, must have been rather “en vogue“, the early 8th Century hindu philosopher Sánkara made it the pivot around which his Advaita Vedanta is woven. He however strongly believed in The One in the old sense of the Hindu-word but added that this One comprises all there is, and that all there is is a manifestation of The One, the whole.
(1): in Pali language Bhadda = auspicious; she received this name upon taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma (dharma) and the Sangha.