The One

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.



In her “Eminent Nuns; Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China” (2009, Hawai’i Univ. Press), a book that seems to have been put online, entirely or partially, the author Beata Grant addresses the issue – if it is an issue – of female monks of East-Asia.

She writes with the western concept of women’s emancipation in mind, and hence seems to stress the thought that women need to be elevated to the status of men while at the same time at least not downplaying the physical and mental differences between the two sexes.

The East-Asian Buddhist approach of monks and nuns – the Chinese and Korean – is a different one: as the object of one’s endeavours, enlightenment, is genderless, so is the monks Sangha, the men and the women, at least as far as the cultivation goes and the presentation to the world.
Beata’s “defeminization of Buddhist nuns” (p.94) therefore appears correct to the eyes of the western feminist, but it is a non-issue in the eyes of the said Chinese en Korean Sangha-members. (Sangha in the narrow sense of the community of monks and nuns.)

The gender-equality of the Dharma, hence the gender-equality of the East-Asian monks and nuns is demonstrated in the “families” that structurize themselves around a preceptor. Monks and nuns ordained at the same time under a particular preceptor are “brothers”; the “elder generation” of monks and nuns ordained under such a preceptor are “uncles”, and a “younger generation” of ordainees, ordained under this preceptor, are “cousins”. Certainly, this chosen form has gender: as there does not exist a gender-neutral way to convey genderlessness they show the male form.

Therefore Beata’s translation of “Dharma aunt” (p.95) is incorrect. In the absence of the original manuscript we may even surmise that the original Chinese text does not have the word “aunt” (ayi / āyí ) at all.

As an illustration we may give Beata’s feminist rendering of the Linji-monk Yikui Chaochen’s last poem, followed by a gender-neutral rendering:

All her life, this “fellow” has been tough as nails;
Once she dug her heels in, she could not be moved.
At twenty-four, she first found out about this matter;
Ten years she bitterly struggled, for forty forgot herself.
The nine bonds of this suffering world were untied
When she saw how to cut through its ways like water.
She’s long wanted to leave, and now her karma agrees;
Seven springs in a single day, iron nails turned to dust.
The four great elements dispersed by wind and fire.
Leaves fall, it is clearly autumn: time to return to the root.
Ha, ha, ha!
Footloose and fancy-free – that’s me!

A life long this “fellow” has been tough as nails;
Once having firmly footed, there was no way of moving.
At twenty-four the first discovery of this matter;
Ten years of bitter struggle, for forty forgotten the self.
The nine bonds of this suffering world were untied
Once seen how to cut through its ways like water.
Then this longing to leave, and now karma agrees;
Seven springs in a single day, iron nails turned to dust.
The four great elements dispersed by wind and fire.
Leaves fall, it is clearly autumn: time to return to the root.
Ha, ha, ha!
Footloose and fancy-free – (that’s me)!

(Does “that’s me” really occurs in the poem?)

Comfort and ease

The meaning of zì zai (Chin.), resp. chaje (Kor.)


The 20th of March 2016 a Korean Buddhist group proposed to build a hospital for Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks. The group dubbed this initiative the “Ulsan Chaje Bhikku Hospital“, Ulsan being one of the big cities in South Korea, and chaje (Kor.), resp. zì zai (Chin.) meaning free, unrestrained, comfortable, at ease. Hence we must translate the phrase as “the Ulsan Hospital for bhikkhus (monks) where their health is restored to its former comfort, ease.”

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism under the guidance of Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. (2014 Princeton) translates chaje and zì zai in an altogether different way. Nonetheless the lemma accompanying this sentence in which we come accross “ba da zizai wo” (Chin.), resp. “p’al tae chaje a” (Kor.) clearly refers to the physical prowess of “buddhas and bodhisattvas”. This lemma says:

Ba da zizai wo (J. hachidai jizaiga; K. p’al tae chaje a) In Chinese the “eight great types of autonomy of the self”. In distinction to mainstream Buddhist teachings about the absence of a perduring self … the Chinese recension of the Mahāyana Mahāparinirvānasūtra teaches a doctrine of a “great self” (dawo, S. mahātman) that is realized through enlightenment. According to the Chinese renderings, a buddha, having realised this great self, is capable of eight kinds of miraculous transformations (ba shenian; ba zizai): (1) self-manifesting (he has the power to make his body appear as multiple emanations; nengshi yishen wei duoshen); (2) infinite enlargement (his physical body appears to fill the myriad world systems; shi yichenshen man daqian jie); (3) levitation and translocation (viz., to transport himself to remote places through space; dashen qingju yuandao); (4) incarnating into myriad species or categories of sentient beings (xian wulianglei changju); (5) intentional synesthesia (e.g. to see with his ears, to smell with his eyes, etc.; zhugen huyong); (6) attaining any ability imaginable, but without giving rise to the (conceited) thought of attainment (de yiqie fa wude xiang); (7) elaborating on the meaning of a single scriptural stanza for innumerable eons (before exhausting his knowledge and eloquence; shuo yiji yi jing wuliang jie); (8) pervading all of infinite space (shenbian zhuchu youru xukong). Other Mahāyana scriptures outline similarly fantastic and dramatic depictions of greatly apotheosized buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas.

The “Princeton” “eight great types of autonomy of the self” ought therefore be translated as “the eight  great attainments, while demonstrating physical ease and comfort“. This is in accordance with descriptions in the Mahāyana sūtras such as the Avatamsaka Sūtra and others.

In translating correctly we do not draw the “wo” (Chin.), resp. the “a” (Kor., litt. I or me) into the atman/anatman (Skr. for self/not-self) discussion, but merely acknowledge the fact that “wo”/”a” stands for this particular individual in its physical appearance: a buddha, or a bodhisattva in his highest “stage” of attainment. The sūtra says that it is capable of performing supernormal feats. The above-mentioned “dawo” (Chin.) is therefore not to be translated as “Great Self” in the sense of the Sanskrit mahātman, but rather as physically infinitely large, great, all-pervading. And indeed, in Chinese religious circles this greatness is taken literally (1); it literally permeates the cosmos: look at me — dawo, immense me!

Close-reading of the Mahāyana sūtras results in the realisation that here we find not only wishful thinking with regards to supernormal prowess. In first and last instance it is a visualisation-meditation: wish it were true; if I apply my thoughts well enough, maybe, just maybe, it will come true; at least in my own practice buddha is indeed immense, his words resound throughout the cosmos, to be heard by all and sundry.

(1) Chinese pre-Buddhist philosophy and folk-religion knows gods like the earth-god or the mountain-god that necessarily demonstrate themselves as physically immense. Buddha cannot be smaller; his appearance needs to include, or better, needs to visually obliterate the popular gods that fade in his presence. One day on a Taiwanese mountains the popular gods were carried out of their own shrines to be placed at the feet of the Buddha image in the temple hall that opened its doors for a day long Buddhist cultivation. The populace — that fiercely would not accept a no for an answer — placed their folk gods in the temple hall to receive the empowerment of Buddha; their gods would become better gods through being present.

Wide or straight

Consider this comparison between Christian and later Buddhist Thinking

Matthew 7:13/14
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.
“For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

A Korean “muga” (song), sung by a shaman (mudang) that in this case entirely reflects maháyanistic Buddhist thought sings:

“When you want to go to the world of Paradise,
If you take the narrow road,
It is the road to Hell,
If you take the wide road,
It is the road to Paradise.”

(Tr. B.C.A. Walraven)

This muga does not sing of nirvana; it rather sings the praises of the Blissful Land of the West (Sukhávati) also called Paradise, a concept belonging to the Pure Land tradition of East Asia.

The statement about the Dharma’s “wide road” towards final liberation seems to be based on the legend concerning Sidhártha’s literal path to enlightenment or awakening. The legend, or the history says that on his way to the bodhimanda, the seat made of grass under the Bodhitree, the Buddha-to-be “went at evening along the wide road towards the Bodhi-tree accompanied by divinities, who sang and honoured him with sweet flowers”. (Tr. E.J. Thomas, The Life of Buddha as Legend and History, p.71)

The Maháyana to which the above concept of the Sukhávati (Paradise) belongs is called “the wide road to perfection” since the traveller is allowed to choose from a wide range of practices. This stands in contrast to the earlier Buddhist teaching where solely the monastic is addressed and where “road” is preceded by “straight” (uju or ujju), not by “wide” (an all too liberal interpretation of mahá: “great” or even “much”)(1).
In this early dharma-interpretation the “straight road” starts with one philosophical realization and goes on to other philospophical-emotional-psychological awakenings until the road is completed. The Greater Discourse on the Cowherd, belonging to this earlier Pali or Small Vehicle collection has:
“How does a bhikkhu (monk) not know the road? Here a bikkhu does not understand the Noble Eightfold Path as it actually is.” (and so forth for each aspect of the Eightfold Path)
(Transl. bhikkhu Bodhi)

Hence the later maháyanistic “wide road” is one of these instances where we are aware how the cultivation-practice of Buddhism gradually opened up to the laity.
The Pure Land-practice, adopted by a majority of the Asian laity leads to “rebirth” in the above-mentioned Paradise where attaining the final goal consists of walking the straight road which in this “paradise” is effortless on account of the ideal conditions that prevail in paradises.
The Korean mudang either was a Pure Land Buddhist, or had at least an incling of its concepts and practice, whether or not she at the same time honoured a number of gods belonging to Korean folk religion.

(1) In Pali: ujumagga the straight (uju) road (magga) D i.235; Vin v.149; It 104; J i.344; vi.252; DhA ii.192.