Yequan Shenxiu

From New World Encyclopedia

Yequan Shenxiu
Born: 607
Place of birth: Luoyang, Henan, China
Died: 706
Religion: Zen Buddhism
School(s): Northern school of Ch'an
Title(s): Ch'an-shih
Greatly Penetrating Dyãna Master

Predecessor(s): Daman Hongren

Yequan Shenxiu (神秀) (606? – 706) (Wade-Giles: Shen-hsiu; Japanese: Jinshū) was one of the most influential Chan Buddhist masters of his day, a patriarch[1] of the 'East Mountain Teachings' (Chinese: tung-shan fa-men)—the East Mountain Teaching was given the modern diminutive appellation “Northern School” by Shenhui (670-762). Shenxiu was Dharma-heir of Hongren (弘忍) (601 - 674) (Wade Giles: Shih Hung-jen; Japanese: Gunin), honored by Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690-705) of the Tang Dynasty, and author of the Guan Xin Lun (Treatise on the Contemplation of the Mind, written between 675-700[2]), a text once attributed to Bodhidharma.[3]

One of the best known stories in Chan history is the verse writing contest between Shenxiu and Huineng. The story is found in the Platform Sutra of Huineng. The story illustrates why and how the illiterate Huineng, not Shenxiu, succeeded as the Sixth Patriarch of Chan and portrays Shenxiu as an inferior Chan teacher to Huineng. However, Buddhist scholars today are gradually recognizing Shenxiu's importance and revealing an unbiased history of Chan.


Shenxiu was born in Weishi County, suburb of Luoyang, Henan, then secondary capital of China. His family name was Li. His family was aristocratic and may have been related to the Tang Dynasty imperial family.[4] He was educated in the Chinese classics and Taoism and became a Buddhist at the age of thirteen when he went to the government granaries at Kaifeng during a famine to plead the release of grain to the starving population. There he met an unnamed Buddhist and was inspired to take up Buddhism. After some seven years of a homeless life visiting the famous mountain centers of China, Shenxiu took the full precepts of Buddhist monk in 625 at Tankong monastery in Luoyang (洛阳), the Buddhist center at the end of Silk Road since the second century.

Traces of his activities for the next twenty-five years have been lost; the Chuanfa Baochi (Annals of the Transmission of the Dharma-treasure) claim that Shenxiu studied the Buddhist regulations (vinaya) and ceremonies and devoted himself to the practice of meditation (dhyāna) and the development of wisdom (prajñā ). In 651 he began to study under Hongren. The aforementioned Ch’uan fa-pao chi states that he studied with Hongren for six years, thereby leaving in 657, before the arrival of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, with whom Shenxiu supposedly had the famous verse-writing contest (see below).[5]

It is not clear why, but sometime around 665-668, Shenxiu was banished by the emperor and remained incognito for some ten years, returning to public notice between 676-679.[6] He initially took up residence at the monastery Yü-ch’üan-ssu but soon one was built for him, the Monastery of the Six Perfections (Tu-men ssu) where he spent the next quarter century.

In the late eighteenth century, the Empress Wu invited Shenxiu to the capital at Luoyang to teach Chan Buddhism. His welcome in 701 was by all accounts quite spectacular. The Annals of the Transmission of the Dharma-treasure describe Shenxiu’s path being bedecked with flowers and the master riding on a litter of the type reserved for the imperial family. In an unprecedented gesture, the Empress knelt before the Chan master, touching her forehead to the ground in great reverence. The Annals go on to say that “From princes and nobles down, everyone [in the capital] took refuge in him.”[7]

For the last five years of his life, Shenxiu traveled between the two capitals of Luoyang and Chang'an, preaching the Buddhist Dharma before passing away at his monastery, Tumen Si, sitting in meditation on February 28, 706.[8] The leng-ch’ieh shih-tzu chi (Records of the Teachers and Disciples of the Lankavatara) state that his last words were ch’u-ch’u chiao, which Professor Seizan Yanagida translates as “the teachings of the expedient means have been made direct.”[9] The reigning Emperor Zhongzong (705-710) granted the posthumous title Ta-t’ung ch’an-shih (Greatly Penetrating Dhyāna Master), only the second time in Chinese Buddhism and the first for three hundred years that this imperial honor had been bestowed.[9]

The Verse Contest

One of the most well-known and cherished stories in Chan is the verse writing contest between Shenxiu and Huineng at Hongren's monastery. The story can be found in the Platform Sutra of Huineng but whether it actually occurred is doubtful. The story was written to glorify Huineng in contrast to Shenxiu. The credibility of the story has been questioned.[10][11] The account given in the Platform Sutra is as follows.

The Fifth Patriarch Hongren, realizing he was coming to the end of his years, instructed his monks to compose a "mind-verse" which would confirm their level of attainment. The winner of the contest would be named Sixth Patriarch and receive the robe of Bodhidharma. None of the monks dared to write anything, deferring to Shenxiu who they believed would be the next Dharma heir. Shenxiu, full of doubts about his own abilities and with the weight of expectation upon him, finally wrote a verse. Uncertain about his worth as a patriarch, he wrote his verse anonymously on a wall in a corridor of the monastery. Shenxiu's verse read:

The body is the bodhi tree
The mind is like a bright mirror's stand.
At all times we must strive to polish it
and must not let dust collect.

Publicly, Hongren praised this verse and instructed all his monks to recite it. Privately, Hongren asked Shenxiu to compose another verse as Hongren (he believed that Shenxiu's verse did not display true understanding of the Dharma). Shenxiu was unable to compose another verse. Meanwhile, the illiterate Huineng heard the monks chanting this verse and asked about it. When told the story of Hongren's contest, Huineng asked a monk to take him to the wall where Shenxiu's verse was written. There he asked someone to write his own verse. Huineng's verse read

Bodhi originally has no tree.
The bright mirror also has no stand.
Fundamentally there is not a single thing.
Where could dust arise?[12][13]

The account says that publicly Hongren denigrated this verse but later, in private, he taught Huineng the true meaning of the Diamond Sutra, thereby awakening Huineng to the sutra's profound teaching. Hongren gave Huineng the robe of transmission and told him to flee the monastery in secret at night. Huineng thereby became the Sixth and last Patriarch of Chan.

This verse writing contest was used by Shenhui (684-758) (Wade-Giles: Shen-hui; Japanese: Kataku Jinne) to malign Shenxiu and his so-called "Northern School" as being gradualist and was instrumental in the split of Chinese Chan into "gradualist" and "sudden" schools. Gradualits viewed the Enlightenment as a "gradual" process of realization which takes place throughout one's religious life, whereas "sudden" schools viewed the Enlightenment as the perfect, one-time awakening experience which does not require further Enlightenment.


Although Shenxiu was labeled a teacher of the “Northern School” of Chan in subsequent histories of Chan, he saw himself as teaching in the “East Mountain” tradition of Hongren. The “Northern School” appellation was applied in the early 730s by the monk Shenhui who accused Shenxiu of teaching a “gradualist” approach to Chan Buddhism.

Shenxiu was highly educated and studied the Buddhist scriptures assiduously. He re-interpreted the scriptures as metaphors of “skilful means” (Sanskrit: upāya; Wade Giles: fang-pien) for “contemplation of the mind,” advocating the attainment of Buddhahood in all daily activities, here and now. Every act was seen as religious practice. For example, he saw simple activities, like taking a bath, as a religious act. He taught that soap used to clean away dirt “is actually the ability of discrimination by which one can ferret out the sources of evil within oneself.” Cleaning the mouth with toothpicks is “nothing less than the Truth by which one puts an end to false speech.” Overt religious activities such as burning of incense were seen as “the unconditioned Dharma, which ‘perfumes’ the tainted and evil karma of ignorance and cause it to disappear.”[14]

In meditation practice, Shenxiu taught that the student should develop the innate ability of the mind “to illuminate and understand all things”[15] and to see the emptiness of all things. He taught that there is a profound stillness and tranquility in all things. A “Northern School” text known as the Five Skillful Means states: “in purity there is not a single thing…Peaceful and vast without limit, its untaintedness is the path of bodhi (बोधि). The mind serene and enlightenment distinct, the body’s serenity is the bodhi tree.”[14]

Even though Shenxiu and the “Northern School” were subsequently attacked as teaching a gradualist approach to enlightenment, the Kuan-hsin lun (Treatise on the Contemplation of the Mind), a text which is “unquestionably written by him [Shenxiu]” [16] clearly states: “It does not take long to witness this (i.e., to realize sagehood); enlightenment is in the instant. Why worry about your white hair (i.e., about your age)?”[16] Shenxiu’s exhortations to constant, unremitting practice gave Shenhui the opening to attack the teaching as “gradualist.” In any case, the vilification of Shenxiu by Shenhui occurred some thirty years after Shenxiu’s death. During his lifetime, and especially his relatively brief teaching in the capital cities of the Tang Dynasty, Shenxiu’s teachings were received with widespread acceptance and reverence. The influence of Shenxiu’s teachings on subsequent Chan doctrine and practices is still a somewhat open question.

Decline of Northern Chan School

It was the Southern School teaching that has survived to date, creating the the myth that Northern Chan was lost over a debate on succession. History, however, shows that the dominance of Southern Chan was largely aided by the regime for political support during the watershed events of the An Shi Rebellion. Shenhui, a follower of Huineng, gained official support by gathering significant donations from Chan Buddhists for the imperial treasury. This led to the waning of Shenxiu's views and the dominance of Shenhui's teachings.

See also


  1. Dumoulin (1994, 1998), 109.
  2. McRae (1986), 119.
  3. McRae (1986), 148.
  4. McRae (1986), 46.
  5. Historical writings date Huineng’s arrival at Hongren’s monastery sometime between 659 and 674 (the sources disagree on the date). Fa-hai’s (n.d.) preface to the Platform Sutra gives the year as 661. See McRae (1986), 285 n.77.
  6. See: McRae (1986), 48-50 for speculation as to Shenxiu’s banishment
  7. McRae (1986), 51.
  8. The date is McRae’s (1986), 54. Yampolsky gives the date as April 15, 706 (Yampolsky, (1967), 16).
  9. 9.0 9.1 McRae (1986), 55.
  10. McRae is adamant it never happened, saying, "Here we can be definitive: there is no such possibility whatsoever, and the account must be accepted as a brilliant and religiously meaningful bit of fiction. McRae (2003), 67.
  11. Vladimir K. takes the story as a "complete fabrication." See Vladimir K., Legends in Ch’an: the Northern/Southern Schools Split, Hui-neng and the Platform Sutra April, 2005. Retrieved July 20, 2008.
  12. The verses are taken from McRae (2003), 61-62.
  13. McRae points out that the earliest version of the Platform Sutra has two versions of Huineng's verse:
    Bodhi originally has no tree.
    The mirror also has no stand.
    The Buddha-nature is always clear and pure.
    Where is there room for dust?
    The mind is the bodhi tree
    The body is the bright mirror's stand.
    The bright mirror is originally clear and pure.
    Where could there be any dust?
    It is only in later version that the third line, "Fundamentally there is not a single thing," can be found. (See McRae (2003), 61)
  14. 14.0 14.1 McRae (2003), 50.
  15. McRae (2003), 53.
  16. 16.0 16.1 McRae (1986), 207.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dumoulin, Heinrich. [1994] 1998. Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume I, India and China. Simon & Schuster and Prentice Hall International. ISBN 0-02-897109-4
  • McRae, John. 2003. Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23798-6
  • ———. 1986. The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1056-2
  • Yampolsky, Philip B. 1967. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: the text of Tun-Huang manuscript, translated, with notes. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-08361-0

External links

All links retrieved May 23, 2023.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.