Jianzhi Sengcan

From New World Encyclopedia
Jianzhi Sengcan
Born: Unknown
Place of birth: China
Died: 606
Nationality: Chinese
School(s): Ch'an
Title(s): Third Chinese Patriarch

Predecessor(s): Dazu Huike
Successor(s): Dayi Daoxin

Jianzhi Sengcan (僧璨) (died 606) (Wade-Giles, Chien-chih Seng-ts'an; Japanese, Kanchi Sosan) is known as the Third Chinese Patriarch of Chán (Zen) after Bodhidharma and thirtieth Patriarch after Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha. He is considered the Dharma successor of the second Chinese Patriarch, Dazu Huike (神光慧可) (Wade-Giles, Ta-tsu Hui-k’o, Japanese, Taiso Eka). After a legendary encounter with his teacher, Huike, he secluded himself for many years in the mountains to avoid the persecution of Buddhism underway at that time, until he met his successor, Daoxin, and transmitted the Dharma to him. He died sitting under a tree before a Dharma assembly in 606, and was later given the honorary title Jianzhi (Chien-chih, “Mirrorlike Wisdom”) by Xuan Zong Emperor of Tang (September 8, 685[1]-May 3, 762).

Sengcan is best known as the putative author of the Chán poem, Xinxin Ming (信心銘,Hsin Hsin Ming, Verses on Faith-Mind), much beloved by Chan (Zen) practitioners for over a thousand years. The poem reveals the influence of Taoism on Chan Buddhism, and deals with the principles of non-duality and the metaphysical notion of emptiness (śūnyatā) which can be traced back to Nagarjuna (c.150-250 C.E.) (Chinese: 龍樹).

Historical sources

The historical record of Sengcan is extremely limited. Of all the Chán patriarchs, Sengcan is the most ambiguous and the least known. Most of what is known about his life comes from the Wudeng Huiyuan (Compendium of Five Lamps), compiled in the early thirteenth century by the monk Puji at Lingyin Temple in Hangzhou. The first of the five records in the compendium is a text commonly referred to as the Transmission of the Lamp[2] and it is from this text that most of the information about Sengcan is garnered. Most modern scholars have some doubts about the historical accuracy of the Lamp records.[3][4] The earliest recorded reference to Sengcan is in Further Biographies of Eminent Monks (645) (Japanese, Zoku kosoden; Pin-yin, Hsu kao-seng chuan) by Tao-hsuan (?-667) where Sengcan’s name is listed immediately after Huike’s name, as one of seven disciples of Huike in a biographical entry about the Lankavatara sutra master, Fa-ch’ung (587-665). No further information is given.[5]

It was not until the Records of the Transmission of the Dharma-treasure (Sh’uan fa-pao chi), compiled about 710 and drawing on the stories in the Further Biographies of Eminent Monks, that a teaching “lineage” for Chan Buddhism was created. Some have speculated that it was merely the fact that Sengcan’s name immediately followed Huike’s name in the latter work that led to him being named as the Third Patriarch of Chan.[6] The biography that follows is garnered largely from traditional biographies of Sengcan, mainly the Transmission of the Lamp (Denkoroku), by Keizan Jokin Zenji, a koan collection of 53 enlightenment stories based on the traditional legendary accounts of the Zen transmission between successive masters and disciples in the Soto Zen Buddhist lineage from Shakyamuni Buddha to Japanese Zen Master Ejo, who first brought the Soto Zen teaching from China to Japan.


The year and place of Sengcan’s birth is unknown, as is his family name. The Transmission of the Lamp entry on Sengcan begins with a koan-like encounter with Huike:

Sengcan: I am riddled with sickness (said to be leprosy). Please absolve me of my sin.
Huike: Bring your sin here and I will absolve you.
Sengcan (after a long pause): When I look for my sin, I cannot find it.
Huike: I have absolved you. You should live by the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.[7][8]

It is said that Sengcan was over forty years old when he first met Huike in 536[9] and that he stayed with his teacher for six years.[10] Huike gave him the name Sengcan (literally "Sangha-jewel," meaning “Gem Monk, ” or "Jewel of the Buddhist Community.")[11] There are discrepancies in the accounts of how long Sengcan stayed with Huike. The Transmission of the Lamp records that he “attended Huike for two years”[12] after which Huike passed on the robe of Bodhidharma and Bodhidharma’s Dharma (generally considered to be the Lankavatara Sutra), making him the Third Patriarch of Chan. According to the Zen scholar Heinrich Dumoulin,[13] in 574, the accounts say that he fled with Huike to the mountains due to the Buddhist persecution underway at that time. However, the Lamp records claim that after transmitting the Dharma to Sengcan, Huike warned him to live in the mountains and “Wait for the time when you can transmit the Dharma to someone else.”[14] because a prediction made to Bodhidharma (Huike’s teacher) by Prajnadhara, the twenty-seventh Chan ancestor in India, foretold of a coming calamity (the Buddhist persecution of 574-577).

After receiving Dharma transmission, Sengcan lived in hiding on Wangong Mountain in Yixian and then on Sikong Mountain in southwestern Anhui. After that he wandered for 10 years with no fixed abode.[15] In 592, he met Daoxin, (580-651) (Pin-yin, Tao-hsin 道信 Japanese, Daii Doshin) a novice monk of just fourteen.[16]) Daoxin attended Sengcan for nine years and received Dharma transmission when he was still in his early twenties. Subsequently, Sengcan spent two years at Mount Luofu (Lo-fu shan, northeast of Kung-tung (Canton)) before returning to Wangong Mountain. He died sitting under a tree before a Dharma assembly in 606. Dumoulin[17] notes that a Chinese official, Li Ch’ang, found Sengcan’s grave in Shu-chou in 745 or 746. Sengcan received the honorary title Jianzhi (Chien-chih, “Mirrorlike Wisdom”) (Wade-Giles, Chien-chih; Japanese, Kanchi) from the Tang dynasty emperor Xuan Zong (September 8, 685-May 3, 762), who is credited with bringing Tang China to a pinnacle of culture and power.

Although Sengcan has traditionally been honored as the author of the Xinxinming Hsin Hsin Ming, most modern scholars dismiss this as unlikely and improbable.[18][19]

Sengcan, like Bodhidharma and Huike before him, was reputed to be a devotee and specialist in the study of the Lankavatara Sutra (“Sutra on the Descent to Sri Lanka”), which taught the elimination of all duality and the “forgetting of words and thoughts,”[20] stressing the contemplation of wisdom. The link between the Lankavatara Sutra and the “Bodhidharma school” is provided in Tao-hsuan’s Further Biographies of Eminent Monks where, in the biography of Fa-ch’ung he “stresses that Hui-k’o was the first to grasp the essence of the Lankavatara Sutra.”[21] and includes Sengcan as one who “discoursed on but did not write about the profound message of the Lankavatara Sutra."[22] Due to the lack of authentic evidence, comments on Sengcan's teachings are speculative.[23]

Various legends surround the life of Jianzhi Sengcan. According to one, when he encountered the second patriarch Huike for the first time, Huike is supposed to have said, "You are suffering from leprosy; what could you want from me?" Seng-ts'an replied, "Even if my body is sick, the heart-mind of a sick person is no different from your heart-mind." This convinced Huike of Sengcan’s spiritual capacity. It is also said that during the Buddhist persecution of the year 574, Sengcan feigned mental illness in order to escape execution. When he went into hiding on Mount Huan-kung, his presence there is said to have pacified the wild tigers, which had caused great fear among the local people.[24]

Xinxin Ming

Xinxin Ming (alternative spellings: Xin Xin Ming or Xinxinming) (信心銘) (Wade-Giles: Hsin Hsin Ming; Japanese: Shinjinmei (or Shinjin no Mei); Korean: Sinsim Myong), a poem attributed to Jianzhi Sengcan, is one of the earliest Chinese Chan expressions of the Buddhist mind training practice. Although Sengcan has been traditionally recognized as the author, modern scholars believe that the verse was written well after Sengcan's death, probably during the Tang Dynasty[25] The classical source of the Xinxin Ming can be found in the Transmission of the Lamp (Wade-Giles: Ching-te Ch'uan-teng Lu; Japanese: Keitoku Dentõroku 景德傳燈錄 景徳伝灯録).

The word "xinxin" has commonly been interpreted as "faith" or "trust," and there are numerous translations of the title including "Faith in Mind," "Inscription on Trust in the Mind," "Verses on the Faith Mind," "On Believing in Mind," "Inscription of the Perfected Mind," and “The Truthful Mind.”

The Xinxin Ming has been much beloved by Chan (Zen) practitioners for over a thousand years. Many important commentaries were written on it, and is still studied in Western Zen circles.[26] The opening stanza, "The best way is not difficult. It only excludes picking and choosing," is quoted by many Zen masters.

Xinxin Ming consists of 146 unrhymed four-character verses (lines), making a total of 584 characters. It was composed in shih form, although unlike most shih, no end rhyme is employed. An early expression of Chan Buddhism, Xinxin Ming reveals a Taoist influence mingled with Buddhist spirituality. It is written in genuine Chinese without the use of Sanskrit or Pali Buddhist terms. Words of Taoist origin such as non-action (wu-wei), no-mind (wu hsin), one mind (i-hsin), spontaneity (tzu jan), vacuity (hsü), and deep meaning (hsüan-chih) illustrate the profound influence of Taoism on Zen.[27]

The poem draws on the Wisdom sutras of Buddhism to express ultimate unity between opposites and the metaphysical notion of emptiness (śūnyatā) which can be traced back to Nagarjuna (c.150-250 C.E.) (Chinese: 龍樹). The Xinxin Ming deals with the principles of non-duality and the results of practice and the application of these principles.[28] It professes the need to take both pleasant and unpleasant life experiences with a sense of equanimity.


Opening verse

The opening verse, variously translated, sets out the fundamental principle:

The best way [Great Way, the Tao] is not difficult
It only excludes picking and choosing
Once you stop loving and hating
It will enlighten itself.
(trans. D. Pajin)


The Perfect Way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses to make preferences;
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise
(trans. by D.T. Suzuki)[29]


The Way of the supreme is not difficult,
If only people will give up preferences.
Like not, dislike not.
Be illuminated.
(translated by Lok Sang Ho)[30]

Last verse

The poem ends with:

Emptiness here, Emptiness there,
but the infinite universe stands always before your eyes.
Infinitely large and infinitely small;
no difference, for definitions have vanished
and no boundaries are seen.
So too with Being
and non-Being.
Don't waste time in doubts and arguments
that have nothing to do with this.
One thing, all things:
move among and intermingle, without distinction.
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about non-perfection.
To live in this faith is the road to non-duality,
Because the non-dual is one with the trusting mind.
Words! The Way is beyond language,
for in it there is
no yesterday
no tomorrow
no today.[31]


One in All,
All in One—
If only this is realized,
No more worry about your not being perfect!
Where Mind and each believing mind are not divided,
And undivided are each believing mind and Mind,
This is where words fail;
For it is not of the past, present, and future.
(trans. D.T. Suzuki)[29]


The truthful mind is beyond the two views.
Beyond the two views is the truthful mind.
Words and language fail,
For reality is neither the past and nor the future.
And it is not even the present.
(translated by Lok Sang Ho)

See also


  1. Dates given here are in the Julian calendar. They are not in the proleptic Gregorian calendar.
  2. Andrew E. Ferguson, Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000, ISBN 0 86171 163 7), 10-11.
  3. John R. McRae, Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism (University of California Press, 2003, ISBN0-520-23798-6 p 5).
  4. Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume I, India and China (Simon & Schuster and Prentice Hall International, 1998, ISBN 0 02 897109 4), 97.
  5. Dumoulin, 96-97.
  6. John R. McRae, The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch'an Buddhism (University of Hawaii Press, 1986, ISBN 0-8248-1056-2), 280-281.
  7. Thomas Cleary, Transmission of Light: Zen in the Art of Enlightenment by Zen Master Keizan (North Point Press, 1990, ISBN 0-86547-433-8), 129.
  8. Desheng Zong, Three Language-Related Methods In Early Chinese Chan Buddhism. Retrieved December 1, 2008.
  9. Andrew E.Ferguson, Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings (ISBN 0 86171 163 7), 21.
  10. Dumoulin, 97.
  11. Ferguson, 22.
  12. Cleary, 129.
  13. Dumoulin, 97.
  14. Ferguson, 22.
  15. Ferguson, 23.
  16. The discrepancy is noted. The 592 date comes from Ferguson, p. 24
  17. Dumoulin, 104-105.
  18. Dumoulin, 97.
  19. Sacred Texts, Jianzhi Sengcan. Retrieved December 1, 2008.
  20. Dumoulin, 95.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid, 97.
  23. McRae (1986), 29.
  24. Michael H. Kohn and Stephan Schuhmacher, The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1994, ISBN 0877739803), 311.
  25. Dumoulin, 97.
  26. Soeng (2004), xiii.
  27. Sacred-texts.com, Zen texts Retrieved December 1, 2008.
  28. Dusan Pajin, On Faith in Mind, Journal of Oriental Studies XXVI (2), Hong Kong, 1988.
  29. 29.0 29.1 Suzuki (1960), 76-82.
  30. Lok Sang Ho, Xin Xin Ming: Song of the Truthful Mind. Retrieved December 18, 2008.
  31. home.att.net, trans. Richard B. Clarke. Retrieved December 18, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cleary, Thomas. Transmission of Light: Zen in the Art of Enlightenment by Zen Master Keizan. North Point Press, 1990. ISBN 0-86547-433-8.
  • Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume I, India and China. Simon & Schuster and Prentice Hall International, 1994. ISBN 0 02 897109 4
  • Ferguson, Andrew E. Zen's Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000. ISBN 9780861711635.
  • Foster, Nelson and Jack Shoemaker (eds.). The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader. The Ecco Press, 1996. ISBN 0-88001-344-3.
  • Kohn, Michael H., and Stephan Schuhmacher. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1994. ISBN 0877739803.
  • McRae, John R. Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. University of California Press, 2003. ISBN0-520-23798-6.
  • McRae, John R. The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch'an Buddhism. University of Hawaii Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8248-1056-2.
  • Pajin, Dusan. On Faith in Mind. Journal of Oriental Studies Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Hong Kong, 1988.
  • Roshi, P.T.N., Jiyu Kennett. Zen is Eternal Life. Shasta Abbey Press, 2000. ISBN 0930066200.
  • Soeng, Mu. Trust in Mind: The Rebellion of Chinese Zen. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004. ISBN 0-86171-391-5.
  • Suzuki, D.T. Manual of Zen Buddhism. NY: Grove Press, 1960. ISBN 0-8021-3065-8.
  • Xuanzang, and Richard B. Clarke. Hsin hsin ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind. Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press, 1984. ISBN 0934834482.
  • Yampolsky, Philip. Ch'an-A Historical Sketch in Buddhist Spirituality: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World. Takeuchi Yoshinor ed., SCM Press, 1999. ISBN 0-334-02779-9.
  • Yampolsky, Philip. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: The Text of the Tun-Huang Manuscript. Columbia University Press, 1967. ISBN 0-231-08361-0.

External links

All links retrieved August 1, 2022.

Preceded by:
Hui Ke
Chinese Ch'an Patriarch
Succeeded by:
Dao Xin


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